Friday, December 30, 2016


The world does not, as far as I know, have any democratic governments. We have republics (and a few monarchies), where some elite, a congress/president or a parliament/prime minister, have privileged political authority, i.e. authority to actually govern. Some republics deserve the name of democratic republics, where all citizens have (more or less) equal voice in privileging the governing elite. Years of gerrymandering and the legally privileged duopoly of the Democratic and Republican parties (never mind the economic power the capitalist and professional-managerial classes use to influence elections) cast into serious doubt whether the United States republic is actually a democratic republic.

In contrast, as I define it, a democracy has no one with privileged political authority. The people govern themselves. The kind of radical socialist vanguard party must support democracy.

Although a democracy will often use majorities to decide issues, a democracy is not the sovereignty of the majority. A democracy must have limits on the will of the majority. Although the people might decide on additional limitations, a democracy must have institutions that prevent a majority from disenfranchising any minority. No one may legitimately barred or limited from participating in the political process as an equal.

Second, institutions and practices must exist to devolve power away from the center, i.e. to localities and regions, rather than the nation (or the world) as a whole. For the people to govern themselves, they should preferably not be governed by people far away, who do not share their interests. There are certain issues that must be governed by the center (notably macroeconomic policy), but it should be institutionally difficult to centralize and easy to regionalize and localize.

All governing institutions in a democracy must be absolutely transparent. Secrets must be limited in only the most extreme cases. (The technical details of military hardware is one example: the people gain nothing important by knowing exactly how to construct a nuclear bomb.) Not even the majority may arbitrarily keep secrets from the minority.

A reasonable template for an institution that can thwart the will of the majority when it acts undemocratically is the institution of supreme judicial authority with the power of judicial review, such as the Supreme Court of the United States. Note that the Supreme Court has been exceptionally effective at preserving the United States' specifically capitalist republic against the threat socialism, but has been flexible enough at times to yield when the socialist pressure proved too strong. People who condemn the Supreme Court for having a poor history of upholding individual rights fundamentally misunderstand the Court's role in a capitalist republic: their role is to preserve capitalism against the majority of the people or their trustees. The role of the Supreme Court can be easily replicated to protect a democracy.

(No political regime is foolproof; if enough people try hard enough and long enough, they can undermine and corrupt a democracy, just like they can and have undermine and corrupt any regime. Sometimes to the benefit of humanity: undermining and corrupting monarchism and feudalism was a Good Thing. However, institutions can slow the process of corruption enough that a democracy does not fall "by accident" or happenstance.)

Implementing an actual democracy presents technical challenges, but we can surmount these challenges. There are a variety of options.

One possibility is to just let everyone vote on everything. Such a method would have been impossible before, but today we have the internet and sophisticated privacy-preserving and identity-establishing encryption and authentication technology.

This approach poses two political issues that cannot be solved technologically. First, the problem of harassment and intimidation, well known today on the internet. This problem can probably be ameliorated by a blend of anonymity and identity: we can establish a medium for political discussion that protects the physical anonymity of individuals, but establishes a "political" identity. Anyone can see all of a citizen's political contributions, but it is nearly impossible to tie that political identity to their personal identity (e.g. where they live and work). Additionally, this medium would probably require some form of institutional moderation.

The more important political issue is establishing and maintaining a consistent focus, to keep the people's individual voices from becoming mere noise. I don't know how to fix this problem, hence I prefer other solutions.

Another possibility is delegated democracy: people elect delegates, who take on the actual work of forming public policy. The difference between a democratic delegate and a republican trustee is that while the delegates provide a point of focus, they are not autonomous. The people can recall their delegates at any time, and might possibly retain the power of changing their delegates' policies directly. Hence delegates to not have privileged political authority, although they will almost certainly have unusual political influence.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Carrie Fisher 1956-2016

Drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

A socialist vanguard party

Donald Trump and the Republican party beat Hillary Clinton and the Democrats because the people are thirsty for radical social change. The Republicans won because the Republican party, although initially hostile to Donald Trump, pivoted quickly to embrace him and his message of radical social change. Indeed, the Republican party has embraced, it its 21st century American way, the underlying approach of the radical vanguard party, and it has so far been successful.

There are alternatives.

The Democratic party has tried hard to be a party of incremental change. But the status quo has been so hostile to so many citizens that so long as elections mean anything (and they do mean something, just not what most people think), incrementalism cannot generate positive mass appeal; the Democrats' support has come only from conservatives who sensibly fear any kind of radical change for any reason.

The Occupy (and related) movements tried hard to be a "party" (in the loosest sense of the word) of purely bottom-up change. While they did important work, it is difficult to see how an Occupy-like movement can itself radically change our actually existing social institutions.

I have no small sympathy for both Democratic incrementalism and Occupy-like bottom-up action. If you believe either of these approaches are the best way to make progressive change, then do them with my blessing. I will merely note that I have not seen any progress — I have seen only a slowing of reaction and regress — from these approaches; any true progress they have made — and they have made some true progress — does not address the fundamental evils of capitalism. It is without question laudable that there is more racial, gender, and sexual orientation equality, but class inequality has increased. I am against oppression itself; it is not enough for me that oppression has become less racialized and sexualized.

I have been patient: I have watched class regression for more than thirty years. But my patience is not limitless. The final straw was the Democratic party's 2007 spineless appeasement of the war in Iraq, and Obama's pro-capitalist anti-worker response to 2008 Global Financial Crisis and his expansion of military imperialism just sealed the deal. If the Democratic party wants to turn itself into a vanguard party for socialism or even actual class progressivism, strengthening the working class against the capitalist and professional-managerial classes, all well and good, but doubt they can. The post-FDR Democratic party has always been the organ of the professional-managerial class (the technocrats), not the working class, and the technocrats will not easily cede the party to the working class.

I reject the incrementalists and the "bottom-up-ists." I do not think they are wrong in what they want; I think they are wrong and how to get there. I do not reject these strategies because they cannot quickly implement the radical changes to our political and economic institutions I see as necessary. I reject these strategies because I have not seen them make any progress at all for the working class; I say again: at best they have slowed reaction and regression. But slow death is still death.

I am in favor of a radical socialist vanguard party simply because radical vanguard parties work. They work on the left: Lenin's Bolsheviks, Mao's communists, and numerous small countries, notably Cuba. They work on the right: The National Socialists were a vanguard party, and the Republicans turned themselves into a vanguard party, and have just now been successful.

Note that I have neither the talent or inclination to actually organize a vanguard party. I am at heart a math teacher; at best I can offer only a bit of theoretical advice.

A radical vanguard party is a self-organized group of people with a clear ideological position that seeks to acquire state power and use that state power to implement its ideology.

In a socialist context, the vanguard party is more problematic than in an authoritarian context. Because all hitherto existing ruling classes have been authoritarian, parties are more easily expressed and organized in an authoritarian form. And the use of state power per se is to some extent inherently authoritarian. Hence, any vanguard party is especially susceptible to authoritarianism. For a vanguard party with an authoritarian ideology, such as the Republican party, there is no danger at all; a vanguard party with an anti-authoritarian ideology faces the serious danger of becoming authoritarian.

I cannot deny these criticisms. The best I can say is that the danger might not be inevitable; careful attention to the organization of a vanguard party might mitigate the danger of becoming authoritarian in its success. And even if authoritarianism is inevitable, there are gradations of authoritarianism: capitalist authoritarianism is better than monarchical, feudal, and fascist authoritarianism, technocratic authoritarianism is better than capitalist authoritarianism, and I would argue that socialist authoritarianism is better than both capitalist and technocratic authoritarianism.

I would also argue that anti-authoritarian absolutist "bottom-up" radicalism has never proven itself effective. I don't believe that bottom-up radicalism can succeed so long as any ruling class institutions still have any legitimacy; bottom-up radicalism cannot, I think, even begin to succeed until almost all of the ruling class institutions have decisively crumbled. However, regardless of their moral evils, our current capitalist institutions are in fact keeping billions of people alive. Were these institutions to simply disappear with no immediate replacement, billions would die. I am unwilling to sacrifice billions of people to any morality, however much I agree with it. The only hope I can see is to try to use presently existing institutions, and their inherent authoritarian context, to at least try to make progress towards true human freedom and liberty rather than wait passively or ineffectually for the absolute collapse of capitalism and the deaths of billions.

The collapse might come regardless of any efforts to the contrary, however great. If so, there it is, and the bottom-up radicals will have their day. If I were to survive (which I probably won't), they would have my unqualified support. Until then, and unless they show me they can be effective, I will endorse a vanguard party.

I will briefly lay out the fundamental principles of a socialist vanguard party, which I hope to later explore in more depth. I claim a radical socialist vanguard party must:

  • adopt the ideology of political and economic democracy (not democratic republicanism);
  • organize itself as much as possible along the lines of its own ideology;
  • strive to seize state power to implement its ideology;
  • make careful plans and preparations for its use of state power to prevent itself from becoming authoritarian and anti-democratic

Monday, December 26, 2016

The revival of the working-class concept

The Revival of the Working-Class Concept: Trump, the Class Struggle and the (Somewhat Overstated) Specter of Fascism, by Gary Leupp

What’s really needed is for the Sanders supporters to join with the Trump supporters who would have voted Sanders, and the bulk of the working class—including those who supported none of the candidates, thinking none of them deserving support—to join to fight what should unite them: the capitalist globalization and imperialism that have so badly hurt them. This is a tall order given cultural divides. But maybe a wake-up call for the radical left that has long written off the “labor aristocracy” (as bought off by white privilege and U.S. global hegemony) while betting on the lumpenproletariat and identity politics to bring on a revolution that wouldn’t need the working class once so assiduously courted and organized by the left in this country.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Socialism and morality

Socialism is the notion that the material well-being of each member of society is the collective responsibility of all the members. We collectively see to people's material needs because we must.

In this sense, even a thoroughly capitalist society such as the United States can be partly socialist: to the extent that we take some responsibility for some material needs of some people, we are partly socialistic. So, yes, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, etc. are socialistic.

The opposite of socialism is autonomism, i.e. that no member of society has a responsibility for the material well-being of any other member of society. Autonomists can certainly be charitable, but individual acts of charity are voluntary, not a matter of duty.

There's no objective truth as to whether a society should be socialistic or autonomism, or to what degree. It's a matter of what the members of a society want, with the understanding that peoples' desires and social institutions are in a dialectical relationship — each shapes the other — and all are historically contingent. So, in addition to person-to-person persuasion, autonomists try to shape social institutions to encourage people to want autonomism, and socialists try to shape social institutions to encourage socialism. Additionally, there is always reality to contend with: neither socialism nor autonomism are objectively true, but both have objective consequences, and people have preferences about those consequences.

Marx argued not only that capitalism would have disastrous economic consequences, but that capitalist autonomism would have disastrous effects — which he labeled as alienation — on people's personal, social, and moral psychology.

People have been making moral distinctions since the beginning of time; most social mammals (and perhaps birds) probably make moral distinctions. And, while I'm not an anthropologist, there are some hints that even pre-agricultural human societies struggled with a dialectic between moral distinctions and wealth (in the broadest sense of economic power). When there was no storable surplus, reality imposed strong constraints on the connection, and my very cursory studies suggest that the need for collective solidarity entailed that moral worth and wealth were only weakly connected if at all.

Regardless of what happened ten thousand years ago, it is true today that moral worth and wealth are strongly connected: poor means bad, not-poor means good, and rich means awesome. Capitalism did not invent this connection. Adam Smith saw it even at the dawn of capitalism:
To superficial minds, the vices of the great seem at all times agreeable. They connect them, not only with the splendour of fortune, but with many superior virtues, which they ascribe to their superiors; with the spirit of freedom and independency, with frankness, generosity, humanity, and politeness. The virtues of the inferior ranks of people, on the contrary, their parsimonious frugality, their painful industry, and rigid adherence to rules, seem to them mean and disagreeable. They connect them, both with the meanness of the station to which those qualities commonly belong, and with many great vices, which, they suppose, usually accompany them; such as an abject, cowardly, ill-natured, lying, pilfering disposition.
Smith would probably be aghast that his name is connected to a political system that is today so contrary to his morality.

If people believe that that poverty is vice and wealth is virtue, then it is of course completely absurd to adopt a collective responsibility for the material well-being of the poor. To take from the rich and give to the poor is to punish virtue and reward vice. The concept is not merely nonsense, it undermines the very foundation of morality.

Although the connection between wealth and morality is strong, our actual moral beliefs are not so simplistic. When wealth and other notions of virtue and vice are no longer connected, when the possession of wealth is not seen as legitimately connected with virtue, and the lack of wealth is no longer seen as legitimately connected to vice, then social instability inevitably follows. And that is the current situation.

Never mind the electoral college and Republican gerrymandering; in a politically stable society, Donald Trump would never have gotten close enough for these technicalities to matter. What does matter is the connection between wealth and virtue has become disconnected. Specifically, Trump voters, I think, hold four important beliefs:
  1. People who are wealthy because of business are virtuous. Hence, despite his egregious vices, Donald Trump, wealthy because of business, is fundamentally virtuous.
  2. The white, non-urban working class believes itself virtuous, and yet has become poor.
  3. The white, non-urban working class believes that they have become poor because the vicious urban poor is stealing its wealth.
  4. The professional-managerial class is not virtuous, and deserves neither wealth nor political power, precisely because they are stealing the wealth of the white non-urban working class and giving it to the vicious urban poor.

These beliefs have traction because of the class struggle between the capitalist class and the professional-managerial class, and in no small part because the professional class threw away all its advantages: they did not have the will to destroy the capitalist class as a class. (The history of the last 80 years decisively proves that a dialect between the capitalist and professional classes cannot stabilize.) Enough capitalists want the kind of absolute power they had in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (that gave us two world wars and the Great Depression), and the capitalists who see the theoretical value of the professional class have rightly abandoned the professional class because in practice the professionals are incompetent. And, of course, the professional class must be incompetent; to be competent, they would have to destroy the capitalist class, and they will not and cannot.

Donald Trump has finished what Ronald Reagan started: the utter destruction of the professional-managerial class as a ruling class, even as a ruling class wholly subservient to the capitalist classes. (In a truly brilliant exercise of propaganda, the capitalists have completely discredited the professionals by observing that the professionals are subservient to the capitalists. It worked because people don't like weakness.)

Getting back around to the main topic: the "good" capitalist/professionalist solution is to get wealth correlated to non-wealth perceptions of virtue. But trying to correlate wealth to virtue is, as history has shown, very difficult. Wealth always begets more wealth, and if some non-virtuous person manages to acquire wealth, he both lends his vices the imprimatur of wealth as virtue, and also acquires the power to gain more wealth.

As difficult as the task might be, socialists must transform the moral connection between wealth and virtue, at least to the extent that having more wealth than one's neighbor becomes as morally reprehensible as a person hoarding oxygen while his neighbor suffocates.

Friday, December 23, 2016

What should socialists do?

First of all, do what you want. If you prefer an anarchistic, Occupy-style, response to capitalist rule, do that. If you want to support progressive Democrats, fight for Bernie and his allies. Any resistance is better than no resistance, and any resistance to capitalism helps socialism.

So I will claim that, while socialists such as myself should argue for the superiority of socialism to other forms of anti-capitalist resistance, we should not claim that these other modes undermine socialism. We should treat all anti-capitalists as allies. We at least have the same goals. And if those in other modes declare hostility to socialism, our response should be "more in sorrow than in anger."

I will claim the second principle of socialism is implacable political hostility towards both the capitalists and the technocrats. The technocrats might have had a claim on the loyalty of the workers, but Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and the post 1980 Democratic party have decisively and utterly abandoned the working class and made explicit their utter subservience to the capitalist class. Not only that, they have proven themselves ineffective at maintaining even their own class rule; if they cannot help themselves, they cannot do anything for the working class.

The only good reason to support a return to the technocracy is if you yourself are in the professional-managerial class and want to maintain or regain your class privilege. The technocrats will not treat the working class any better than will the capitalists: the only difference will be the capitalists' (possibly murderous) hostility to the technocrats themselves. Note that the technocrats and the capitalists share murderous hostility to socialists.

The technocrats' and capitalists' united murderous hostility towards socialism a difficult challenge. If socialists look like they are making real gains, both the capitalists and the technocrats will unite to try to imprison, murder, and torture us. Still, organization is possible even in countries more willing and able than the United States to use brutal force to suppress socialism (and other dissent). We should study those instances in detail to operate without too many of us getting killed.

Finally, I claim we socialists must actually organize workers. And we should organize the workers not to support us — we socialists are, after all, almost all technocratic class traitors — but to take power for themselves. Organizing workers for themselves, and not for us, is perhaps the most difficult challenge: by virtue of our objectively superior understanding of socialist theory, should we not have privilege to use this theoretical understanding to guide the workers? We should not: that way just lies replacing one murderous technocratic class with another. Our theory is the most flimsy barrier against repeating the brutality of capitalism, both pure and technocratic, and will evaporate at the first crisis.

Perhaps such an exercise is impossible. I myself am too old, too defeated, and too compromised, to lead a socialist resistance. The best I can do is kibbitz from the sidelines.

The current class struggle

The only true class struggle happening now is the struggle between the professional-managerial class (technocrats), represented by the Democratic party, and the capitalist class, represented by the Republican party. The working class is just along for the ride.

The technocrats seized state power in 1933 (FDR) and held it until 1980 (Reagan). After 1980, the technocrats changed orientation as more-or-less independent brokers between the capitalist and working classes and became, with Bill Clinton and later Barack Obama, the servants of the capitalist class. Surprisingly, this subservience was not enough for a large part of the capitalist class.

The capitalist class has two main factions: the first is willing to use the technocrats; the second wants to destroy the technocrats. We know they are true factions because the technocrat-friendly faction is willing to put its class interests first and work with the anti-technocrat Trump.

The technocrats themselves are all pro-capitalist: they want to help the capitalist class. They are literally dumbfounded — and have been for at least thirty years — that a substantial portion of the capitalist class not only refuses the technocrats' help but actually hates them.

Since I myself am mostly imbued with technocratic values, it's difficult for me to understand this antipathy. The independent technocrats "did capitalism" much better than the capitalist class; even the subservient technocrats did a better job managing capitalism than the capitalist class can do. The best explanation I can think of is that technocratic "competence" really is a thing, competence is what allows the technocrats to manage capitalism better than the capitalists, and the institutions necessary to develop competence cannot be "capitalized": technocratic institutions cannot be judged on any notion of capitalist profit. However, competent, a large number of capitalists just can't stand being subservient to anyone outside their class.

I suppose capitalist antipathy to the technocrats is best expressed in Atlas Shrugged, which is a polemic not against communism but against technocracy. (And it is possibly arguable that post-Stalin and post-Mao state "communism" were just different flavors of technocracy, with the Chinese version still extant.)

The most important point is that both the capitalists and the technocrats are dedicated to keeping the working class powerless; they differ only on strategy. The technocrat-friendly capitalists prefer the technocratic strategy, mostly welfare-dependency; the technocrat-hostile capitalists prefer a more thoroughly punishment-based approach. (The technocrats love punishment, of course; the anti-technocrats just want all stick and no carrot.)

The technocrats will fight as best they can for the restoration of the technocracy, or at least some privilege for technocrats in a capitalist-dominated society. I do not think they will be successful; the technocrats do not understand political power; perhaps because of their technocratic nature they cannot. The capitalists understand what the technocrats do not: you must utterly absorb or destroy your enemies; you cannot merely cripple them. In his remarks to Ron Suskind, Karl Rove (probably) outlined the difference:
The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. "That's not the way the world really works anymore." He continued "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

Much is made of the "progressive" Democrats, i.e. Bernie Sanders and his supporters and allies. They are trying to trade on the vague memory of the Democratic party's active support of labor; and they were successful only because the Clinton technocrats simply took urban and minority labor completely for granted. To the extent that the progressive Democrats actually want to give some power back to the workers, the technocrats will ally with the capitalists to crush them. The progressives might be useful to the socialists, but the progressives will not destroy the capitalists, and even if they are temporarily successful, the capitalists will quickly regain power: the capitalists learned much from their interregnum; the technocrats and progressives have learned nothing from their loss.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Don't resist Trump, resist capitalism

The capitalist ship is sinking fast. That's just what we radicals have been waiting for, n'est ce pas? I've been arguing for a long time that a radical transformation of society is moral only if the inevitable pain and suffering of such a transformation is outweighed by the pain and suffering of the status quo. President Trump gives this argument considerable weight.

It is important to resist, but we should not resist Donald Trump per se. Trump is a symptom, not a cause. Trump is not some sort of weird aberration of neoliberal capitalism: his presidency is the outcome of the actually existing institutions created by the actually existing members of the bourgeoisie and the professional-managerial technocrats. Trump is what capitalism does: we know this because we are capitalist, the capitalists have near total national hegemony, and Trump is what we actually did.

It is important to resist, but it is more important to resist in the right direction. We will do humanity no service if we resist Trump just to restore superficially bland (but deeply vicious) technocratic neoliberalism. The technocratic neoliberals gave us Trump and the coming authoritarianism. The technocrats assisted the authoritarians in undermining our republican institutions, thinking that they could control the authoritarians. They could not. They have decisively failed.

Although the technocrats have failed, they retain considerable power. They hate socialism more powerfully than they dislike authoritarianism. In this antipathy they are absolutely united with the authoritarians. The workers must not gain power, come what may. And by calling themselves "progressives" for throwing a few crumbs to the workers, they will erode support for socialism.

The few socialists who have been clinging desperately to intellectual legitimacy have an opportunity, but it is important to use the opportunity correctly. If we simply ally with the technocrats and progressives, we could at best return society to 2008. Not only would such a rollback be completely undesirable (economic depression, a half-dozen wars, torture, mass murder of black people by the police, etc. ad nauseam), it is impossible: too many people have decisively rejected that society (and their rejection is right, even if we might disagree with their alternative) and its reimposition would require exactly the kind of authoritarianism that we reject in Trump.

We must focus on one thing and one thing only: all power to the workers. The rest is commentary.

Such a goal is feasible. The authoritarian strain in the workers is both shallow and thin. It's big enough that a leader of great charisma and iron will could ride it at least a temporary success, but Trump does not have sufficient charisma to inspire adulation, and he is especially weak-willed. We should fear who comes next, but we are fortunate that American authoritarianism has begun in such a ridiculous way. (Not that I am deprecating the harm Trump will do, but in the hands of someone with real charisma and real will, authoritarianism could be much much worse; Trump at least does not have world war and mass extermination in him.)

The authoritarian strain is not so great that it cannot be opposed. The workers want to be listened to, and no small few workers voted for Trump, and vote for the Republican party, not because they want an authoritarian ruler, but because they thought Trump would disrupt the authority that they rightly believe just ignores and belittles them.

We must convince the workers that no one, not Trump, not the capitalists, not the technocrats, not the Republicans, will listen to them. They must struggle not for attention but for power.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Trump and the Hell's Angels

 This Political Theorist Predicted the Rise of Trumpism. His Name Was Hunter S. Thompson:  In Hell’s Angels, the gonzo journalist wrote about left-behind people motivated only by “an ethic of total retaliation.” Sound familiar?
By Susan McWilliams

What’s truly shocking about reading [Hell's Angels] today is how well Thompson foresaw the retaliatory, right-wing politics that now goes by the name of Trumpism. After following the motorcycle guys around for months, Thompson concluded that the most striking thing about them was not their hedonism but their “ethic of total retaliation” against a technologically advanced and economically changing America in which they felt they’d been counted out and left behind.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The party we need

A Blueprint for a New Party.

It's difficult to create a new political party, mostly because state election laws actively discourage such a task, and if some party manages to surmount the barriers to just getting on the ballot, the state legislators just raise them. And, because the barriers to entry are so high, any alternative party has to devote most of its energy and money not to policy and active organization, but just to get on the ballot.

However, Seth Ackerman believes that Citizens United is a blessing in disguise: it allows unlimited money to flow not just to the Democratic and Republican parties, but to any party, which makes financing new political parties financially viable. And Sanders showed tat quite a lot of money can be raised even without Wall Street and the Democratic 1%.

Ackerman talks about third parties' worries about being "spoilers" for the sympathetic wing of the traditional parties, the left and the socialists no longer have to worry about spoiling anything for anyone. If the neoliberal welfare-busting, mass-incarcerating globalizing Democratic bastards even had a progressive wing, which they don't, they've proven they cannot actually, you know, win an election. Not just for president; the Republicans control the House, Senate, and most of the state legislatures and governorships. Anyone who says that working within the Democratic party is the only way to get things done is delusional: The Democratic party can't get anything done. If y'all can completely reform the Democratic party, good on ya, but I've waited for 36 years for the party to get its shit together, and I've seen not just zero progress but substantial regress, both ideologically and strategically.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Eleven theses on Trump

As much as my friends are horrified at a Trump presidency with a Republican congress, that's exactly how horrified Trump voters considered a possible Clinton presidency and Obama's actual presidency. Elections are about values, not about policies.

Trump and the Republicans are not just about racism and sexism, but racism and sexism are real factors. We don't seem to understand racism and sexism; I myself don't claim to understand them. I definitely strongly dislike racism and sexism, but dislike is not understanding. If we're going to get the white proletariat and white petty-bourgeois/petty-professional class to turn away from racism and sexism, we have to understand them, so we can propagandize and negotiate effectively. Screeching at racists and sexists, dehumanizing them, placing them in the "basket of deplorables," may be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't seem to be moving racism and sexism back.

Clinton and the Democrats, as well as the "traditional" Republicans, are not just about classism, but classism is a real factor. Upper-middle class people do not want to lose their class privilege, which they justify in exactly the same way that white people justify white privilege and men justify male privilege. (I don't mean to say that classism is exactly the same as racism; only the justifications are identical.)

Too many Democrats, especially Clinton Democrats, have nothing but contempt for the working class and the poor; unlike Trump, they do not hide their contempt. Republicans are only a little better, at least at hiding their contempt. I think I understand classism. I don't understand racism and sexism, but I do see racism and sexism as emerging from classism. I don't think we're going to make progress so long as we try to address racism and sexism as divorced from class.

Liberalism, i.e. technocratic professional/managerial class rule, is decisively over. Technocrats do not understand values, which are not "rational" but emotional. They do not understand politics. More importantly, it is precisely the technocratic core of the Democratic party that has destroyed the American working class, and who cares if a bunch of ignorant racist hillbillies are suffering. The Republican party too, of course, but the technocratic Democrats supported them, demanded the credit, and are taking the blame. We still need highly educated people, but they (well, we) are unfit to rule.

The Republican party has been running a long affinity con on the white working class, petty-bourgeois, and petty-professional class. These classes have at least begun to wake up, so they nominated Trump. I remains to be seen if Trump actually delivers anything to the white working class or doubles down on the long con. The Democratic party has been running a long affinity con on black people. I don't know when black people will wake up to the con. Some have, but not many.

The Democrats are not as bad as the Republicans, who are not as bad as Trump, but that's the best I can say about them. The Democratic party has not fought against the police killings of black people, they have not fought against assassination and torture, they have not fought against imperialism, they have not fought against the financial, medical, and industrial monopolists, and, most importantly, they have not fought for the working class, white or black. We can condone losing; we shouldn't condone not fighting.

Only the working class can bring in authoritarianism and fascism, and only the working class can avoid it. The bourgeoisie has shown itself incapable of resisting authoritarianism, and the professional/managerial class is too weak and too stupid to even see it, much less prevent it.

Either the working class has to take over the Democratic party, or they must form a new political party; I don't know which would be easier. The strategy should be first to go after working class Democrats: "Clinton and the party (or party establishment) betrayed you." In a couple of years, when Trump betrays them himself, go after working class Republicans.

However one defines "democracy", choosing between fascism and fascism-lite ain't it. We have a republic, so we have to use it, but we must transcend the republic.

We cannot have political democracy without economic democracy. Indeed, economic democracy must precede political democracy.

[Edited 31 July 2017 for grammar.]

Monday, October 24, 2016

The calvinist roots of american anti-intellectualism

the calvinist roots of american anti-intellectualism

People sometimes say that they like Trump because he speaks his mind and because he talks and thinks like they do, and this is often read as code for people liking his racism. But it is more than that. Trump sounds familiar because he is doing on a grand stage what they are told to do every day from pulpits across America. They are told to stick to their guns and to reject the evolution crap and the carbon dating crap and more generally the logic and inductive science crap, and they know that it is HARD. But here is Trump, a man who can proudly, unashamedly, stand up to Renaissance and Enlightenment-forged principles of rational inquiry and rational discourse.‘

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons

Elinor Ostrom's 8 Principles for Managing A Commmons:

  1. Define clear group boundaries.
  2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.
  3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.
  4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.
  5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.
  6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.
  7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution.
  8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Democracy, socialism, and (anti-)capitalism

In Democracy. Capitalism. Socialism. Choose Any Three of the Above, Steve Roth argues that all three of these ideas are embedded in modern society and necessary for a decent, prosperous society. Roth observes that there are people who oppose each of the three, and argues that these opponents are misguided.

Roth seems to use "socialism" to mean collective responsibility for at least some aspects of individual well-being, and notes that empirically, prosperous countries all engage in socialist activities, such as "government-provided retirement and health care/insurance systems, free public education, government spending on infrastructure and research, programs for economic security, and . . . huge redistribution programs." That they have not declined into totalitarian dystopias decisively rebuts at least the most purist and reductive Hayekians. But other than his support for (minimal) socialism, Roth's article fails to explore the connections between anti-socialism and anti-democracy, and thus entirely misreads anti-capitalism.

Roth claims that while anti-socialists "stand at the very pinnacles of power," anti-democrats are entirely marginalized, "invisible and voiceless." However, he fails to observe that opposition to socialism (in Roth's sense) necessarily entails opposition to democracy. When people are organized and powerful, of course they will vote themselves collective responsibility for individual well-being.

Roth seems to think that anything short of outright authoritarianism is democracy, and that anti-democracy can be found only only proponents of political philosophies such as Libertarianism, which at best only thinly veil their advocacy for authoritarianism. But democracy entails more than just letting people periodically vote. A democracy requires that the people have not just nominal but actual sovereignty, and that we have our own institutions, institutions that maintain our organization and power to direct events and exercise our sovereignty. The institutions we actually have, not only the Republican but also the Democratic party, the structure of our explicitly governmental institutions, and even the constitution itself, serve to limit and marginalize the people's democratic authority. All Roth observes is that most everyone with an actual voice endorses the illusion of democracy; he does not see them opposing its substance. And, to oppose socialism, they must oppose the substance of democracy.

Since Roth cannot see the erosion of substantive democracy by the anti-socialists, he cannot comprehend anti-capitalism, and his straw-man thumbnail portrait of anti-capitalism falls flat. (Roth can be excused somewhat from moral responsibility: True Socialism (tm), collective ownership of the means of production and, more importantly, "dictatorship" (political primacy) of the proletariat, has been so thoroughly crushed that effective expression is limited to the odd corners of academia.) But still, anti-capitalism does not, as Roth asserts, hinge on making sure people don't sell their Kenny Loggins records for a profit.

Roth does make an accurate point, that "the notions of 'anti-capitalists' inevitably envision the eradication of institutions that are ubiquitous in (and hence presumably necessary to) thriving, prosperous economies." Yes indeed! Capitalism is a collection of institutions, and surprisingly enough, anti-capitalists, being against capitalism, necessarily advocate dismantling many of these institutions.

One obvious error is that Roth explicitly conflates ubiquity and necessity. Anti-capitalists reject Roth's presumption: ubiquity does not entail necessity. We argue precisely the opposite, that many capitalist institutions retard economic (as well as social and psychological) prosperity. These are precisely the institutions that place anti-socialists at "the very pinnacles of power," that make every incremental gain in the kind of socialism that Roth supports the painful work of a generation of citizens. Worse yet, over the last four decades, we have witnessed few gains, mostly in cosmetic issues, and many losses for the people's political and economic power and well-being. Anti-capitalists argue that we are becoming less socialist precisely because of capitalism.

It is worth quoting Roth's polemic against anti-capitalism at length:
[I]t’s completely unclear exactly what laws [anti-capitalists] want to get rid of, or replace.

They might concede, for instance, somewhat reluctantly, that you will be legally allowed to own your Kenny Loggins records. (That’s kind of them.) You might even be free to buy and sell records. But are you allowed to make a profit doing so? Or should we pass laws to make that illegal? If you run a record store or a plumbing business, are you allowed to hire employees for hourly wages? Are you allowed to “own” that business? Are you allowed to make profits based on the sweat of those employees’ brows? Crucially, if not: is jail time the punishment for doing so? If we’re going to “end capitalism,” what laws are they suggesting we should actually put in place, today? Despite (or because of) all those tomes and tracts, their answer remains radically unclear.

I think that Roth is overstating the unclarity of anti-capitalism: I don't think it is "completely" or "radically" unclear. But there is a wide variety of conflicting opinion among anti-capitalists. However, this breadth can be attributed to the destruction of anti-capitalism as a political force, surviving, as mentioned above, only in academia. And that's what academics do: take a tiny little piece of a problem and wrestle with it in print; once they publish, they are done. And of course they often explore topics that seem silly. First, academics, especially philosophers, use seemingly "silly" examples for their clarity and simplicity, not their relevance. Roth might as well argue that epistemology is concerned with whether barns in Philadelphia are real or whether someone in your office owns a Ford. (Note that to find this example, I googled "epistemology gettier example" and took the first link that wasn't an encyclopedia.) The article Roth cites about Kenny Loggins records is subscription only; without reading it, I have no idea how the author is using the notion.

But even t is the nature of the institutions of academia that there is very little centralized control over a "message"; by design, academics radically dis-organize and decentralize academia. It is not "they", it is not anti-capitalists in general, it is Bhaskar Sunkara the individual who explores the issue in an article, and he is in no position to either legalize or criminalize anything.

A coherent, practical program arises from real people wrestling with real problems with at least some power to effect solutions, and capitalist institutions marginalize from practical politics — often by imprisonment, murder and assassination — anyone who shows even a hint of effective anti-capitalism. An academic who uses Kenny Loggins records to explore the notion of private property is very different from a political organization that actually advocates putting people in jail for selling their records, which, of course, no political organization would actually do.

But Roth's questions are worth answering. As to his most "crucial" question, repeated twice: would anti-capitalists jail dissenters? Before I answer for anti-capitalists, let me turn the question around: would capitalists jail people who don't have a place to live? Well, yes, they actually do. Would capitalists jail people for being poor and black, to maintain a hyper-exploited underclass? Again, yes, they actually do. Would capitalists put people in jail for infringing on physicians' monopoly on prescribing drugs? Yet again, yes, they actually do. Worrying about others' possible advocacy for jail time in the most notorious modern carceral state seems hypocritical. But of course incarceration is a capitalist institution, not only invented by the capitalist state but is also "ubiquitous in (and presumably necessary to)" capitalism: Does Roth with one hand accuse anti-capitalists of wanting to dismantle this "necessary" institution out of one side of his mouth and accuse of wanting to preserve it out of the other?

But of course anti-capitalists (those not engaged in a desperate existential struggle for national and cultural survival) are generally against incarceration on principle, even for activities such as murder that are unequivocally strongly objectionable. (It is not that we condone murder, it is that incarceration is not a productive way to prevent or respond to murder.) So no: regardless of any theoretical inquiry, anti-capitalists are not going to put people in jail for selling their Kenny Loggins records, nor even put people in jail for exploiting their workers, because putting people in jail for anything is a dumb idea in the first place.

And if you want to sell your Kenny Loggins records, go ahead and sell them. If you get more money (or whatever we use to account for consumption) than you paid, whatever. It's trivially stupid to worry about that sort of thing at a practical political level.

Roth finally escapes triviality when he asks if, under some hypothetical anti-capitalist system, businesses can hire employees at an hourly wage. And the answer is obviously no (and, since businesses cannot "hire" "employees", they cannot exploit them). The employer-employee relationship, a relation of domination and subordination, is one of the most critical capitalist institutions anti-capitalists seek to dismantle. We wouldn't put people in jail for that, for the same reason we don't put people in jail for buying slaves at Wal-Mart. "Hiring" an "employee" simply becomes incoherent because the institutions of anti-capitalism would make it so that no one would ever have a reason to find an "employer" to "hire" them. Instead, anti-capitalists have proposed any number of alternatives to the capitalist dominant employer and subordinate employee, such as worker-owned cooperatives and democratizing access to capital. Why would anyone want to subordinate herself to someone who is an "employer" only because of privileged, undemocratic, access to capital when she can just as easily set up her own record shop or plumbing business? Of course, someone could choose to join up with someone more experienced, and choose to defer to their judgment, but they would not be an "employee", subordinating their economic survival to another.

If Roth's thesis were correct, then we should see not just steady but accelerating progress in both socialism and democracy under capitalism. We have all the capitalism we can possibly have, but progress in socialism is not accelerating, and not even steady, but other than a few sporadic and isolated gains, actually regressing overall: western capitalist societies are becoming less socialist, less democratic. Since we have a lot of capitalism and little socialism or democracy, it is not trivially stupid to conjecture that the former just might well be the cause of the latter; barred from actual political engagement, all we can do is speculate academically. If people like Roth take anti-capitalism seriously, not as a finished program but as a theoretical starting point, perhaps we could put this speculation to the test.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Prices and exchange

By definition, a socialist economy is one in which we don't produce enough so that even within reason, people can have all the stuff they want. A socialist economy, is, hopefully, moving toward such an abundance economy (which capitalism can't do after a certain point), but our consumption is still restricted. Because consumption is restricted, we have to account for what each person consumes in considerable detail. This means we have to attach consistently determinable numbers to a lot of things that people consume, and use these numbers to determine exchange from producers to consumers. Thus, goods and services have prices. "Prices" in this sense follow only from the fact that we do not yet have enough stuff and must therefore account for our consumption. Furthermore, it makes absolutely no sense to just hand everyone exactly the same basket of goods and service, so whatever method of exchange we choose, we have to take into account people's preferences, which we can know only when people make actual choices.

If we call the above a market, then we have defined the term so broadly as to be useless, at least for any philosophical or rational use: in this sense "market socialism" is just socialism.

However, this broad definition does have an important rhetorical use: Socialists are against markets, but markets encompass every reasonable method of distribution and exchange that could work for more than a handful of people. Thus, socialism is unreasonable; therefore capitalism. In addition to the fallacy of the excluded middle (between unreasonable socialism and capitalism), this argument rests on an equivocation fallacy. The market under capitalism does not have the very broad meaning in the first paragraph.

Capitalist markets mean a specific kind of number, determined by a specific procedure, is a price, and capitalist prices have a specific way to motivate choices. The equivocation between the broad and specific definition lets capitalist apologists argue what Dagood aptly labels hopping from foot to foot. On one foot, socialists argue against specifically capitalist markets, so they are against markets. Hopping on the other foot, the broad definition of markets encompass everything, so socialists are against any form of number- and choice-based exchange and distribution, which is absurd.

But really, a socialist form of exchange is not rocket science, and there are any number of different solutions. One super-simple solution is that we estimate the amount of socially necessary labor time (average or marginal) for each good and service we produce, a tractable process. These numbers are the "prices" of the various goods and services. Second, we have some sort of democratic social process such that each person gets a number — which might or might not vary from person to person — every period (month, week, two weeks, whatever); that number is the amount of socially necessary labor time they consume in that period. They go to the store, they buy hamburgers, buns, and toilet paper, and the socially necessary labor time for the toilet paper is deducted from their periodic allocation.

Coordinating the actual production process is more complicated, connecting exchange and production is at least conceptually simple: if we consistently have a lot of good X unsold, we make less of it; if we consistent run out of good Y, we make more.

The above is a "market" in the broad sense, but it is not a capitalist market. First, labor and labor power are not commodities. Second, the socialist prices above are relatively concrete, as opposed to more abstract capitalist prices. Firms do not arbitrarily set prices to maximize profits; prices reflect actual costs of production.

All the above really does is let people do math to do what we economists call budget-constrained utility maximization, which is an ineluctable consequence of using math to make people as happy as possible under external limitations, regardless of the institutional forms of exchange and production.

Socialist exchange is trivial. We don't have to solve massive linear equations. Capitalists (and, sadly, any number of soi-disant socialists) make a lot of noise about the "calculation problem", but it's just not an issue, at least not in the sphere of exchange. One key is that we never have to calculate the whole economy from first principles. An economy is dynamic, and we already have a set of "prices" and "social allocations of consumption"; all we ever need to do is adjust the status quo, and if it's too difficult to do it quickly, we do it slowly.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Smashing the bourgeois state

Smashing the bourgeois state is always a priority of any good communist revolutionary. Fortunately for my tired old ass, The Republicans are doing it for me, and the Democrats seem unable to resist. Oh, Clinton will win, of course, but she won't be able to govern.

This development is doubleplusgood. No Democratic government will ever be legitimate to the Republicans. No Republican government will ever be legitimate to the Democrats. The bourgeoisie is tearing itself apart. And I don't have to lift a finger. Yay!

If any socialists can pull their head out of their ass long enough to pick up the pieces, we might have a chance at progress. However, socialists' heads are pretty firmly wedged (I'm just observing: it took me 40 years to pull my head out of my petty-bourgeois ass, so I'm in no position to criticize), so it'll probably be the fascists who gain.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Civility and professionalism (yeah, right!) in internet comments

Internet comments are subject to creative conjugation: I am telling it like it is; you are abrasive; he is an asshole.

Burt Likko is unhappy with the response of several commenters on a recent (now withdrawn) post on Ordinary Times. Among other issues, Likko laments,
Toxins brew in our comments threads — seemingly forgotten is the principle of charitable interpretation, commenters labor to frame others’ statements in the worst possible light, and then demonstrate smug self-satisfaction in having done so.
Likko wishes,
This site ought to be the online equivalent of a dinner party amongst interesting friends. A college bull session, fueled by beer and fellowship and the thrill of sharing newly-learnt things. A re-creation of a symposium from classical times, where we fill each other’s wine glasses even while we debate. An environment where a multiplicity of different ideas are aired, heard, discussed, and shared. A place where people can engage in intellectual explorations, learn about new things, and try on new and different thoughts for size. For quite a while, and when the community is at its best, that’s a thrilling and exciting sort of place to be, a joyous bazaar of the mind where all manner of wares may be found on display.

I spent a few years as a contributor, moderator, and administrator of the now defunct Internet Infidels Discussion Board, as a contributor to the Straight Dope Message Board, and of course, I have this blog, so I know exactly what Likko is talking about. I've also had experience a college instructor, especially in political science. Likko wants, I think, something close to the environment I have to create in my classroom.

I could talk about rules and regulations, procedures, standards, but that's not the point. The point is to understand the attitudes and purposes of people who comment on the internet, and act to reconcile those attitudes with the desires of the publisher.

It seems too obvious, but the vibe of a dinner party between interesting friends presumes that the participants are already, you know, friends. I give my actual friends much more benefit of the doubt than I give to strangers or acquaintances. If one of my friends says something apparently dumb, I'm inclined to at least think for a moment. And even if my friend really does say something dumb, I also have an investment in the relationship, so I'll try to gently persuade them, or at least just ignore it and maintain the relationship. In contrast, if a stranger says something dumb, then I usually just write them off. There are a lot of people in the world, and I don't have time to dig into everyone's mindset to determine if they really are smart despite appearing dumb.

Second, people really really really want to be heard, and for some people, internet comments are the only way they think they can be heard. Also, everyone thinks they're right about everything (if they didn't, they would have already changed their mind), and they view contrary opinions as something wrong in need of correction. It takes enormous personal discipline to view even the best contrary opinions with charity, and even more discipline — and usually an alternative creative outlet, as I have here — to simply disengage with the worst.

The closest I've come to participating in and creating a collegiate environment among people who are not already friends is, well, in college. The college environment depends on both the ethics and substantial authority of the instructor. The instructor has not only power over the class discussion, but power over the students in assignment of grades. Furthermore, the scope and limitations of the instructors' power is pretty consistent across any student's experience, so they develop internal habits of what they can and cannot say, and how they can and cannot say it. When they come into my classroom, they already know their role and my own in the process.

A site like Ordinary Times has neither of these features. The commenters are not all friends with each other, they often have not developed or do not exercise the discipline to be charitable or silent (and why should they? I'm not making any universal normative claims for this kind of discipline), and the moderators of a site have little actual power over the commenters. Moderators can edit or delete comments or ban commenters, but that's the extent of their power; unlike instructors, moderators do not have something that the commenters desperately want and have paid a lot of money for.

I think for blogs and websites, there is no middle ground. Either you go the old PZ Myers route* and allow pretty much all comments besides spam and harassment, or you go my route and pretty much eliminate comments**. You can make all the rules you want, but people want to have their say, and they always believe they themselves are being perfectly reasonable and polite; it's the other guy who's being an asshole... and sheesh! do they get pissed off when the moderator disagrees.

If you want a friendly, collegiate environment, I don't think there's anything to do but hang out with your friends or go to college.

*I have no idea if Myers still has this commenting policy. I stopped even reading his comments a long time ago.

**I still permit comments, but I am deliberately rude to people I don't like, so they will leave, and I ban them quickly if they persist. I get very few comments, especially compared to the early days of my blog, which suits me just fine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

It's all about the Benjamins

In The Red and The Black, Seth Ackerman (2012) notes that a key feature of capitalism is that firms are autonomous. True: in a capitalist economy, both firms and households are autonomous in the sense that they need not ask permission of anyone outside the firm before taking economic action. However, to coordinate the vast, global machine of capitalist production, there must be a constraint on this autonomy, a severe constraint; otherwise, firms and households would just do things willy-nilly, and there would be no coordination.

I will let Herr Marx do the heavy lifting on the critique of capitalism, but I will observe that the severe constraint is that everyone needs money: yes, anyone can do whatever they like, but if they don't bring in the money, they are well and truly fucked.

Capitalism needs every household, every firm, thinking about money every waking moment. Everyone has to be trying to get their hands on as much money as possible all the time and and all the time spending all of the money as usefully to themselves as possible.

The capitalist system needs money to be constantly moving: it's bad if households or firms hold onto large stacks of actual money for a long time; Thus, for "keeping score" in the long term, instead of accumulating money itself, people accumulate wealth, legal ownership of streams of money. To use a biological metaphor, money is blood, wealth is blood vessels, the supply of blood.

Workers need money, so they work for wages. They need more money, so they work harder and try to find better paying work. Firms need money, and more money, so they please their customers and are always trying, even absent direct pressure, to increase revenue and cut costs (or increase market share). Similarly, the bourgeoisie, the legal owners of streams of money — profits, interest, rent — are always trying to increase their wealth, accumulating more and bigger streams of money.

"Markets", at least capitalist markets, work only to the degree that everyone is motivated to get and spend money and accumulate wealth. Take out this pillar, remove the constant and desperate need of every individual to get and spend every possible dollar, and capitalist markets collapse.

A corollary to this money motive is that money as a product of wealth requires no work, so it is absolutely necessary that only a few have real wealth; if everyone had wealth, no one would, because no one would be working to produce stuff (goods and services), which is finally what money is about.

Capitalism requires a great deal of "central planning". First, a capitalist society must have a legal regime to make people always desperately need money and have to work to acquire it but keep them from just shooting each other for it. This legal regime requires central planning: there must be no "market" alternative to markets.

Furthermore, there must also be centrally planned international force used to shut down socialist alternatives. It is instructive to note that although capitalists proclaim the inherent superiority of capitalism over socialism, capitalist powers are quick to use every means at their disposal, not only military force but also torture and terrorism, to instantly destroy any attempt at socialism. If socialism is so inferior, would it not be better to simply say, "Y'all want socialism? Go for it; we won't interfere. When you start starving, come talk to us, and we'll fix you back up." Ain't gonna happen.

More importantly, because of the critical importance of money, the money itself must be carefully centrally planned and managed. "Free banking" is up there with the stupidest, anti-capitalist Libertarian and right-anarchist ideas. If a capitalist society fucks up the money itself, the drive to acquire money and streams of money collapses, and the economy collapses. When capitalist economies lose a big chunk of physical productive capability, in earthquakes and other natural disasters, the economy quickly recovers. When the money gets fucked up, such as in the Long Depression, the Great Depression, or the current Great Recession (a.k.a. the Lesser Depression), the effects are severe, and it takes a long time to recover. Whether it's a carefully curated private banking system or a state-regulated central bank, a capitalist society must keep careful track of the money itself.

I will examine Ackerman (2012) in more detail later, but the centrality of the money motive to capitalist markets is a severe defect in Ackerman's market socialism. Markets don't work by magic, and labeling some system as a "market" doesn't make it one. Matthijs Krul (2013) correctly uncovers the contradiction: "Ackerman’s solution is to propose a market socialist alternative, which would have prices (and thereby evade the calculation problem), but not profits — a handy solution if ever there was one, having one’s cake and eating it too."

I won't say that one cannot use the word "market" and "prices" except in the context of the capitalist central money motive, but as I noted, for some number to be a "price", the number has to matter, it has to in some way affect people's economic behavior. Take out the constant, desperate, and urgent need for money, and you have to give some alternative account of how prices affect behavior.


Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On communism and markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from

Monday, August 15, 2016

Quiggin on Locke: Against freedom

According to John Quiggin's 2015 article, John Locke Against Freedom, John Locke’s classical liberalism isn’t a doctrine of freedom. It’s a defense of "expropriation and enslavement."

In fine deconstructionist form, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's specific historical situation informs a reading of his works, especially the Second Treatise on Government and Letters on Toleration. Quiggin (2015) claims that it widely known that Locke justifies slavery and denies property right to indigenous people, but that these elements are peripheral to the main themes of Locke's writing, but Quiggin (2015) argues these themes are central. Quiggin (2015) reports that Locke "was intimately involved with American affairs," drafting the constitution of the Carolinas, serving on American trading boards, and, most importantly, was "a major investor in the English slave trade." Quiggin (2015) argues that an interpretation of the latter in light of his supposed advocacy of liberty as mere hypocrisy is "too charitable." Instead, Quiggin (2015) argues that the contradictions between liberty and slavery finds its way into Locke's work: they
are designed to fit his political positions both in England, where he supported resistance to the absolutist pretensions of the Catholic James II, and in America, where he was part of the slave-owning ruling class (albeit from afar).

Quiggin (2015) observes that Locke's argument for religious toleration in Letters on Toleration excludes "both Catholics and atheists"; Locke does not argue for toleration per se, but rather for tolerating only good ideas, i.e. his own. Similarly, given Locke's deep involvement in the colonization of North America and expropriation from the indigenous people, Quiggin (2015) argues that Locke's theory of "original acquisition" is not just a benign historical fiction but an active justification of expropriation: a property right lies not just in temporal priority, but in best economic use. Quiggin (2015) compares the idea that agriculture is a superior economic use to hunting-gathering, justifying American colonial expropriation, and Kelo v. City of New London, where superior commercial use justified the exercise of eminent domain over Ms. Kelo merely temporal priority. Locke does not stake out truly universal standards; he simply universalizes his own specific interests.

Quiggin (2015) reinterprets Locke's "oft-quoted statement": “SLAVERY is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation; that it is hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it” (Locke, 1821, book 1, ch. 1. § 1). Quiggin (2015) denies that Locke does not categorically condemn slavery; instead, Locke condemns slavery only for Englishmen, and only the "slavery" of submission to an absolute monarch. Locke approves of "the perfect condition of slavery, which is nothing else, but the state of war continued, between a lawful conqueror and a captive [emphasis original]" (Locke, 1821. book 2, ch. 4. § 24). Alexander Mosely (N.d.) describes Locke's extension of this argument to enslaved Africans as "defending, if somewhat naively, colonial slavery," but Quiggin (2015) rejects the apologia of naivete. Quiggin (2015) argues that all these positions fit a consistent pattern: rights, freedom, liberty are only for people like Locke, with his particular interests situated in his particular historical context.

(I hope soon to summarize the next two installments in Quiggin's polemic: John Locke’s Road to Serfdom and Locke’s Folly, with Quiggin's summary.)


Locke, John. 1821. Two treatises on government. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Moseley, Alexander. N.d. John Locke: Political philosophy. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Quiggen, John. 2015. John Locke against freedom. Jacobin. Retrieved August 15, 2016 from

Sunday, August 14, 2016

An introduction to prices

Curiously, the three systems of economic organizations that Seth Ackerman (2012) investigates in The Red and the Black all feature something called "prices". Prices are uncontroversially (I hope!) a key part of standard market capitalism, but Ackerman reports that both the alternative systems he examines, presumably Albert and Hahnel's (1991, 1992a, 1992b, 2002)* "participatory economics" as well as Soviet-style central planning, also have prices. According to Ackerman (2012), Albert and Hahnel's plan uses a democratic process to set prices; similarly, the economic task in the former Soviet Union after 1989 was to "Get Prices Right": not to introduce a price system, but to correct an already existing price system (which they found to be already correct). Thus, it is clearly not the case that prices per se are the critical factor; every economic system seems to have "prices." Differences in economic systems consist not of whether or not some system has "prices," but of what prices represent or do, and how these prices interact with human behavior.

*It is perhaps the fault of Jacobin (the online version of the magazine is very difficult to correctly cite), but Ackerman infuriatingly fails to completely cite many of his sources. Hopefully the citations here will assist future scholars.

An economic system consists of a collection of institutions that has three primary functions. First, a quantity and mix of stuff (goods and services), constrained by the available labor and natural resources, must be produced and distributed. Second, the institutions themselves must be reproduced: the human beings who participate in the institutions, and the quantity and mix of stuff will change over time. I use the passive voice above purposefully, because the third and most important function of an economic system is designating which people in which institutions have how much and which control over the production, distribution, and consumption of stuff, the supply of labor offered by the people, and the reproductive future of the institutions.

In On Communism and Markets, I think Matthijs Krul (2013) gives these last two functions special emphasis. It might (or might not) be more "efficient" in some sense to have some system of distribution, but so long as that system reproduces capitalist relations of production, it's not socialism.

However, I think a stronger argument is possible. For Marx, a necessary presupposition for a socialist revolution is that capitalist relations have become fetters on human productive powers. If that is indeed the case, then preserving any kind of specifically capitalist relations is at best dodgy, and requires a much stronger positive case than Ackerman (2012) makes. It is insufficient to argue that capitalism has kept the grocery stores stocked, capitalism uses some unspecified price system, therefore we should preserve this unspecified price system to keep the grocery stores stocked.

These issues are certainly important, but the technical problem of producing and distributing the right quantity and mix of stuff under labor and resource constraints still remains.

I want to construct a minimal definition of price. All three of the systems have something called a "price": to understand how they differ, I want to understand what is common between them all. In the general form, a price is a number attached to some definite, objectively determinable quantity of stuff. The number must be directly observable by and exactly the same for every relevant actor. The number must directly affect the actors' economic decisions: if the number were nontrivially different, the actors would make different economic decisions just because of that difference in price.

Thus the differences between different economic systems consists of how a society attaches these observable numbers to definite quantities of stuff, how these numbers affect people's economic behavior, and how the institutions and individuals reproduce these mechanisms of attachment and effect. In addition to briefly describing the capitalist theory of prices, I will examine each of the systems Ackerman (2012) and Krul (2013) discuss: market socialism, Albert and Hahnel's (1991 etc.) participatory economics, and "Soviet-style" central planning.


Ackerman, Seth. December 2012. The red and the black. Jacobin 8. Retrieved August 13, 2016 from

Albert, Michael, and Robin Hahnel. 1991. The political economy of participatory economics. Princeton University Press.

---. 1992a. Participatory planning. Science & Society 56.1: 39-59.

---. 1992b. Socialism as it was always meant to be. Review of Radical Political Economics 24.3-4: 46-66.

---. 2002. In defense of participatory economics. Science & Society 66.1: 7-28.

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On Communism and Markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from

Friday, August 12, 2016

Central planning and market socialism

What should a socialist economy look like? I'm somewhat in agreement with Marx: we should not be "writing [recipes] (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future."1 Indeed, to a certain extent, I'm completely in agreement. The point is not to design a socialist economy at all; what the economy looks like, even in its broad character, is not the main point. The main point is to establish the "dictatorship of the proletariat": a society of the workers, by the workers, and for the workers. Economic issues are a means to that end; they should be evaluated by how they move society towards or away from the dictatorship of the proletariat. Because the dictatorship of the proletariat is so far away from my experience, it is difficult to imagine how the proletariat, given real power, will choose to organize their economic life. But difficult is not the same as impossible.

A number of people have discussed ideas for how a socialist economy might work. Chris Dillow describes "his" socialism, directing us to Seth Ackerman's sketch of "market socialism" by way of Matthijs Krul's response. I agree with Krul that Ackerman does not locate the fundamental issue of socialism as located in the relations of production, rather than distribution. Although Krul catches that that Ackerman yada yadas over all the good parts, I don't think Krul really nails down the specific problems with Ackerman's ideas.

Krul hints at the contradiction of the idea of prices without profits, but his objection is mostly Marxobabble. In order to analyze Ackerman's proposal, and why they will fail, we'll need to delve deeply into the nature of "prices" and "markets". Buckle in and hang on to your hat: it's going to be a bumpy and extremely wonky ride.

1"Preface to the Second German Edition", Capital vol. I

Thursday, August 11, 2016

The lesser of two evils

I've seen Suicide Squad, and it sucked. Sam Kriss is not so charitable in his review, The Ho-Hum Squad: Jared Leto’s Joker and the evil of banality:
We could note how the lesser evil is always measured against the absolute worst that could possibly happen—nuclear war, the end of the world—while the act of refusing to settle for it is so rarely measured against all the actual wrongs that really do take place. These things are tolerable, and they’ll never end. It’s a cop-out, a refusal to ever think through what evil actually is.

The Century of the Self

The very sharp Marie Snyder shares — and more importantly summarizes, for us video-challenged folk — the documentary film, The Century of the Self - A Brief History of Psychoanalysis and Corporate Control. She concludes,
The fact that Bernays and others are able to manipulate society is testament to Freud's original theory hitting a nail on the head in determining how our drives affect us. But what some people do with that understanding is frightening. This clarifies a pivotal role for schools (complete with lessons on Freudian theory) to ensure we wake people up to their own decision-making as well as to their internal drives. We need to demand a democracy based on collective will for the benefit of society, not individual desires for the benefit of the self.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Advice for Clinton supporters

Corey Robin has some advice for Clinton supporters: if he were truly worried that she might lose, they should actively court leftist voters. They definitely should not attack them.
If . . . I were a big booster of Clinton and if I were at all worried that she wasn’t going to win in November . . . I’d spend every waking or at least spare minute of my life between now and November making sure that every potential Clinton voter that I or my committees could reach was converted into an absolutely solid and reliable vote for Clinton come November. . . .

And here’s what I’d not do: spend my time on social media or in person castigating every member of the left who is a potential Clinton voter but is skeptical or leaning toward Jill Stein or thinking about sitting this one out, castigating them as reckless, irresponsible, childish, purist, fanatical, immature, incompetent, cultish, blinkered fantasists of the revolution, and so on, and then deliver long, sonorous monologues—where I demonstrate zero desire to listen or understand, much less engage, with what the people I’m trying to persuade are thinking—about the need for a popular front that includes the very people I’ve just dismissed as childish and irresponsible.

I get this. Nobody likes being bullied, and those of us sincere commitment to actual progressivism and not just slower regressivism have been being bullied for more than a generation. When does the story stop being give in to keep things from getting worse and start being about making things actually better?

Robin speculates on possible reasons why Clinton and her supporters are not adopting a primarily positive approach to the left, and he nails it with his final possibility: "they don’t think they share any values with the Clinton skeptics on the left; they think those leftists actually believe in very different things."

Clinton is on the right; she's been on the right her whole career. The only reason the left is even considering her is that the Republicans are not only farther to the right, they have moved off the scale and have become officially (instead of informally) batshit crazy. Clinton wants to move to the right, because she sincerely believes that would be best for the country (and her career, but she is at least not a pure opportunist). She can move to the right; there are any number of neoliberal Republicans who see Trump as if not actually fascist then deeply damaging to capitalist class interests and will vote for Clinton.

Why shouldn't she move to the right? Why should she court leftist voters? Even if she had to move left to win, she has her career to worry about: the capitalist class doesn't give six figure speaking fees to socialists.

The only worry she really has on the left is that either a left faction of the Democrats will take the nomination in 2024, or the left will split off from the Democratic party and challenge her in 2020 or 2024. Neither of those outcomes are likely. Enough Sanders leaders will be co-opted and stay within a more explicitly neoliberal Democratic party, the institutional power of the Democratic party is sufficiently large that a third party (or a second party, if the Republicans completely fall apart) on the left will always be marginal.

More importantly, the left can't fight, and they don't have a good story. Today's capitalist left is the residue of professional-managerial class (PMC) rule that was defeated in 1980. Today's left is driven by nostalgia; it is regressive in the literal sense of a return to the past. Moreover, the PMC is fundamentally hostile to the working class (although less so than the bourgeoisie), they demonstrated both their impotence and their loyalty to the bourgeoisie, and the workers don't trust them. "Back to the 1960s!" is not a good rallying cry.

Clinton will move to the right, and the left will let her; what choice do they have? Absent an actual revolution (probably fascist), we'll have eight more years of neoliberalism, eight more years of Middle Eastern wars, eight more years of substandard medical care, eight more years of worker income stagnation, eight more years of global warming, eight more years of mass incarceration and police murders, eight more years of financial parasitism, eight more years of filthy water, filthy air, filthy slums, shitty McJobs.

Monday, August 08, 2016

Clinton and the turn to the right

Beverly Mann is concerned about pundits' (a term which must be used very loosely when referring to Friedman) exhortations that Hillary Clinton move to the right to capture Republicans disaffected by Trump. Paul Krugman is equally concerned.

They are missing the point. Clinton wants to move to the right; Friedman is trying (probably by accident) to provide intellectual and ideological cover.

Krugman spent the entire primary season trying to undermine Sanders' reforms, and now he exhorts Clinton to support them. Wait, what? If Clinton does support Sanders' reforms, it won't be because of Krugman. It will be because the Sanders wing of the party, voters and elected officials, uses its power to push for them.

Clinton is a 1960s Republican. She's pro-business, pro-"free" trade, pro-war, anti-labor, anti-union, anti-poor. She will protect the capitalists and the upper levels of the professional-managerial class, including women and people of color, but without concerted pressure from progressives, she will do nothing but the most egregious tokenism for anyone outside that group.

She will will not end the mass incarceration and police murder of black people; instead, she will give good jobs to a few BlackLivesMatter leaders and neutralize the organization. She will make sure that rich and middle-class women can get safe and legal abortions, but if a poor woman in Mississippi has to travel for 8 hours — twice — to find a clinic, well, that's just too bad. She might eliminate public college tuition — that's a giveaway to the tenured academic class — but she will do nothing to make sure those students have good jobs when they graduate. (And the real expense of college is not tuition, it's trying to eat and pay rent while studying.) She might raise the minimum wage, but only by a little and do nothing to prevent the raise from being expropriated by landlords and businesses. She will do nothing to interfere with health insurance profits from the PPACA, and do nothing to improve access to actual medical care currently unaffordable to the working poor. And, of course, she will continue to murder brown people in the Middle East, torture suspected "terrorists", and strengthen the surveillance state.

On the one hand, the collapse of the Republican party is an opportunity for Clinton. She can run on the scary Trump! platform, and say nothing substantive about her actual administration, and make no important commitments. If she's smart, and she is, and she has the stomach for it, which she might, she will do everything to make sure the progressive Sanders wing of the party is marginalized or outright purged.

But scary Trump! is also an opportunity for progressives. (Chaos is a ladder, right?) Progressives can hold their noses, vote for Clinton, but work like crazy to strengthen the progressive wing. Win congressional and senatorial races. Take control of state legislatures. Win governorships. The collapse of the Republican party makes these efforts much easier. Don't give in to the Republican-lite wing of the party, especially in local races. It is doable.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Central planning

In theory, a market price system should be better than central planning. That's certainly the experience of both the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China. As a computer programmer, I mostly agree.

Ideally, we want to distribute as much as possible. Centralizing anything creates a single point of failure; although the probability of a single failure is lower than in a distributed system, when a centralized system fails, everything goes down. In contrast, an individual failure is more probable in a distributed system: there are more things to fail, and because we spend less to secure each distributed element, the probability that an individual element fails is higher. However, in a distributed system, the consequences of a single failure are negligible, and the probability that enough distributed elements will fail at once to bring down the rest of the system is lower than the probability of a central failure, however careful we are with the central system. Furthermore, distributed systems generally scale better. Doubling the number of elements in a distributed system is usually cheaper than doubling the power of the central system.

No matter how distributed we get, there is always some need for centralization. The internet, for example, is a massively distributed system. However it requires a number of very centralized systems, notably standards to ensure interoperability, domain name servers, and search engines. The internet would not work without Google or someone like them: it doesn't make sense to distribute web searching. Similarly, a centralized system must still distribute something: it makes no sense, for example, for every Russian to travel to the one centralized grocery store in Moscow to buy food. We cannot just formulate a simplistic distributed good/centralized bad (or vice versa) dichotomy. Centralization and distribution are neither binary nor just a trade-off; they are dialectically related.

But still, in theory, a more-distributed price system is, at a first approximation, clearly more efficient than a more-centralized economic planning system. However, it is at a second approximation that we run into trouble.

The internet works as a distributed system because individual elements don't have much incentive or opportunity to exert more power over the system. Even the internet, however, does present opportunities for over-centralization; the power Google has over searching does afford them both the incentive and the power to control everyone's internet experience. Similarly, the power that trunk carriers have over internet traffic gives them a lot of power to manipulate individuals' experience. Paradoxically, we try to solve these over-centralization problems with another centralized institution, the federal government, with net neutrality and anti-monopoly laws and regulations in general.

A price system, however, by design gives everyone the incentive and opportunity to acquire more money and more power. The fundamental incentive of a price system is to accumulate money. A new firm joins an industry only if it can earn an economic profit; but an existing firm in that industry has a strong incentive to resist entry and maintain its own economic profit. No individual firm wants to be in perfect competition; every firm wants to be a monopoly. A price system tries to establish perfect competition by incentivizing firms to escape perfect competition. This contradiction is fundamental, inherent, and ineluctable to a distributed price system, or, more precisely, a private profit maximizing price system.

Thus, while a central planning system is usually less efficient than a private profit maximizing price system at a first approximation, it might be more efficient at a second approximation, because it eliminates the profit motive to establish and maintain monopolies; in other words, a profit maximizing price system is susceptible to "centralization from within," and worse, these centralized entities are not publicly accountable.

(Note that I say "usually" and "might be" above in the sense that anything can be done badly. Crony capitalism, for example, is a profit maximizing price system done badly, and even Soviet-style bureaucratic centralization might be better. At some point, theory must give way to execution.)

Looking at the problem this way, the real problem is not centralization or distribution, not a "price system" (whatever that is); the real problem is private profit maximization. Communism is, therefore, simply what follows from eliminating private profit maximization (i.e. private ownership of the means of production). Soviet or Maoist centralization is one possible consequence, but not the only consequence.

I've outlined one possible alternative, which I'm not entirely happy with. Here's a brief sketch of another:

First and most importantly, when I talk about government below, I mean a radically democratic government, where all the citizenry are substantively and frequently engaged with public policy and, more importantly, engaged with the actual implementation of public policy. The people may employ a civil service to manage routine and rule-based activities, but the people have and exercise sovereign political power. In other words, I am presuming the radically decentralization and distribution of policy and executive political power.

Second, every person (with democratically decided exceptions) earns the same hourly wage. Within reasonable limits, people can choose to work more or fewer hours, but the hourly wage is constant. Everyone who can work has a social and legal obligation to do so. Under no political or economic system I know about can individuals exercise the actual freedom to work any job they choose, so there are social and economic constraints on what jobs a person can choose between, but no individual can be explicitly forced to take a specific job. Everyone able to work at something socially useful is guaranteed the opportunity to do so, and if there are more people who want a specific job than can be usefully employed at that job, objective and fair procedures determine who gets those jobs. If there are fewer people who want a job than is needed, the people will have to democratically decide how to respond; raising the hourly wage for that job is one possible response.

Third, all firms other than in obvious monopolies (obvious monopolies such as water and electric power distribution or mass transit, with always-declining marginal costs, are directly run by the government, and the workers in those industries are unionized employees of the people) are worker-operated. Firms are not private profit maximizing: they may only pay themselves the standard hourly rate. Once in operation, firms rely on the government for circulating capital, which they must obtain at the beginning of every accounting cycle and pay back at the end. They must price their goods and services appropriately; if they are unable to repay their circulating capital, they automatically (without direct political action) shut down, and the workers must find new jobs (which will always be available); only direct and active political action by the people themselves (never the civil service) can a firm survive illiquidity.

Additionally, firms may not save money from one period to the next. If they run a surplus above wages and circulating capital, they must give it to the government. Indeed, the government can and should require a surplus, usually some fraction of start-up and circulating capital. Failure to deliver a required surplus entails automatic shutdown unless the people actively decide otherwise.

Fourth, all start-up capital (fixed capital, initial circulating capital, and initial wages) are also provided by the government, with some institutional limitations. Each individual may draw on some guaranteed start-up capital; individuals can pool this start-up capital and within reasonable but generous limits (i.e. the business must not be a completely obvious waste of time and resources), start any kind of business they choose. Local and regional governments and the national government — only on active political decisions — can also directly offer start-up capital for businesses deemed socially useful and under-represented. No one, however, can be forced to start up such businesses; individuals cannot be denied guaranteed employment if they do not join the government's preferred businesses.

In this system, firms lack the strong incentive of private profit maximization, but they still have a weak incentive. If the workers operating a firm like their jobs (and if they didn't, because alternatives are available, they would have already left), they want to be as efficient as necessary to stay in business and keep doing the jobs they enjoy.

Let me tell a story.

In the People's Communist Democracy of North America, I want to buy an electric scooter. I search the web, and find out that the only electric scooter available is Acme's, but it's under-powered, low-range, and super-expensive: I'd have to work 40 hours a week and live on 25 hours pay for two years to get one. I think I can make a better electric scooter, and make it cheaper, and I think that would be a fun thing to do.

First, I go to the government's consolidated capital availability website, and see if the government is offering capital for scooter manufacturers. If there is, I'm in: the government will supply the start-up capital. But there's not. Sigh.

So I go to my local council. I sign up for a speaking slot, and when it's my turn, I pitch the idea to the meeting and call for a vote. If a majority votes for it, our delegate goes to city council and asks if the city will provide the capital or ask the delegate to the regional council to pitch the idea there, or bump it up to the national council. However, at any point, the local, regional, or national council might say, "No, that's a stupid idea. Nobody but wants better electric scooters," or, "We've seen a hundred proposals for new scooters, and none of them were viable." This road is blocked. More sighs. But all is not lost.

I can draw on a my guaranteed personal capital. I talk to my friend J, a mechanical engineer, and my other friend Alice, an electrical engineer, and they think an electric scooter is a peachy idea. We advertise for someone who's interested who knows about industrial engineering. (I'm an accountant, financial analyst and market analyst.) We pool our personal capital, and come up with a solid plan to show that we really could make better, faster, and cheaper scooters, and people will buy them.

I now have three options. First, our team has no incentive to keep our plans a secret. We can call Acme scooters, show them our plans, and encourage them to make better, faster, and cheaper scooters. If our plan is good, they have an incentive to build them, and sell one to me. I'm happy — I have my good scooter, and I can work 40 hours and live on 30 hours pay a week to pay for it — and I can move on to a new project. But let's suppose they're dumb and refuse.

I can go back to the council with a real plan and ask again for capital to build a scooter factory. If they refuse, I find 20 or 30 people who want to build scooters and who still have their guaranteed personal capital and start one anyway, and we all have fun building electric scooters. After all that, if I can't find 20 people who want to build scooters, then it's probably a bad idea. The capital I used to build the plan is wasted, but I'm not going to lose my home and I still have a job. If I want to work some extra hours and pay back the capital, I can try something different in a year or two.

By design, no one can get rich being innovative. On the other hand, no one can go broke and be ruined for life for innovating and failing. Democratic innovation!