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 jacobinmag.com/2012/12/the-red-and-the-black

Krul, Matthijs. 2013. On communism and markets. Notes & Commentaries. Retrieved August 14, 2016 from http://mccaine.org/2013/01/30/on-communism-and-markets-a-reply-to-seth-ackerman/

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