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.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please pick a handle or moniker for your comment. It's much easier to address someone by a name or pseudonym than simply "hey you". I have the option of requiring a "hard" identity, but I don't want to turn that on... yet.

With few exceptions, I will not respond or reply to anonymous comments, and I may delete them. I keep a copy of all comments; if you want the text of your comment to repost with something vaguely resembling an identity, email me.

No spam, pr0n, commercial advertising, insanity, lies, repetition or off-topic comments. Creationists, Global Warming deniers, anti-vaxers, Randians, and Libertarians are automatically presumed to be idiots; Christians and Muslims might get the benefit of the doubt, if I'm in a good mood.

See the Debate Flowchart for some basic rules.

Sourced factual corrections are always published and acknowledged.

I will respond or not respond to comments as the mood takes me. See my latest comment policy for details. I am not a pseudonomous-American: my real name is Larry.

Comments may be moderated from time to time. When I do moderate comments, anonymous comments are far more likely to be rejected.

I've already answered some typical comments.

I have jqMath enabled for the blog. If you have a dollar sign (\$) in your comment, put a \\ in front of it: \\\$, unless you want to include a formula in your comment.