Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Socialism and Social Democracy

Socialism resembles social democracy. Social democracy is where a capitalist democratic republic distributes some of the social surplus, i.e. the difference between what workers produce and the minimum cost of living, to the workers themselves. Some of this surplus is distributed directly, by supporting higher workers' pay, vacations, sick leave, parental leave, and retirement; some is distributed through public goods such as infrastructure and control over monopolies (especially health care). Workers are materially better off under social democracy, and they have more emotional security and personal autonomy. Social democracy as actually practiced in Scandinavia, Western Europe, and even to some extent in post-Thatcher Great Britain does not lead to dystopia or poverty, nor does it seem, contra Kautsky, the start of a slippery slope into socialism.

Socialism is not social democracy*, but one of socialism's selling points is (or ought to be) that socialism will deliver the same sort of material benefits as social democracy. To a certain extent, then, social democracy undermines socialism: the workers get much of the (purported) benefits of socialism without the chaos and pain of a socialist revolution. I'm cool with that. As a pragmatist, I'm primarily evaluating outcomes, not the underlying structure; the structure is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

*The key difference is that socialism entails that workers, not the capitalists or PMC, dominate economic and political power and take the social surplus, not passively receive it from their "betters".

It's curious, though, that the United States, the wealthiest nation-state with the most productive workers has not only not developed a strong social democracy, but is busily dismantling what little social democratic institutions we used to have, whereas the much smaller Scandinavian nation-states have quite robust social democracies which have not slid into socialism. I suspect that the Scandinavian capitalist class though to themselves that they were never going to run the world, so they could tolerate the diminution of their economic power under social democracy; the Scandinavian working class thought to themselves that they were never going to start off a global socialist revolution, so why bother when they already had most of what socialism promises anyway.

Even social democracy, however, really does diminish the power of the capitalist class. And the American capitalist class really does think it needs every iota of power it can accumulate, both to appear strong in an anarchic international community, and because they think it's counter-productive to try and run the world without all the power they can accumulate.

Additionally, I think the American capitalist class fears the slippery slope into actual socialism more than the Scandinavians. An empowered and entitled working class in the wealthiest, most powerful country in the world differs greatly from one in a much smaller country without much global influence. As the the European Union gains economic and political power, they seem earnestly trying to dismantle its own members' social democracies. The Swedish working cannot simply demand more and more; they are constrained by the rest of the world; the American and European working class, however, faces fewer external constraints.

I'm not, strictly speaking, against social democracy. If I thought the American ruling classes, the capitalist class and the PMC, could deliver social democracy, I would be all for it; I started calling myself a socialist and communist only because concluded that the American ruling could not deliver social democracy, and factions within the ruling classes differed only on how quickly they wanted to dismantle what little social democracy we already had.

The failure to deliver social democracy clearly starts with the "right", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want absolute power for the capitalist class. To these factions, social democracy is a Bad Idea on its own merits. But the capitalist "left", i.e. factions of the ruling classes who want social democracy, bears a lot of the blame; the capitalist left has to demonize socialism, because socialism would almost completely disempower them. But to demonize socialism all to easily demonizes what socialists want, i.e. more economic and social welfare for the working classes. More importantly, most of the capitalist left is in the Professional-Managerial class (PMC), and the PMC needs to maintain an alliance with the capitalist class, but the capitalist class (at least in the US and EU) wants absolute power. By cutting off the pull for economic and social welfare from the socialists, the capitalist left is subject only to the pull for absolute capitalist power from the right.

There's really very little to be done. Socialists are in nearly complete political disarray, the capitalist left is losing power by the day, and the right is organized, militant, and has the will to power. It is, I think, inevitable that the West will slide into fascism, and, ironically enough, it will be the Chinese Communists alone who will retain the military and economic power to oppose them.

Friday, June 08, 2018

No such thing

Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison

(Image: Bernie's Graveyard by Ben Garrison)

There's no such thing as Marxism or socialism. These are terms of broad tribal affiliation; they do not name a singular coherent, identifiable ideology or political or ethical philosophy. There are some broad commonalities between individuals and organizations who call themselves Marxist or socialist, but there is absolutely nothing essential one can say about these terms.

There's nothing wrong with tribal affiliation, or markers of tribal affiliation; it's just that tribal affiliation is something very different from ideology and political philosophy.

A common rhetorical move is to argue* that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so if we give them anything, they'll have enough power to get the Bad Thing. This move is commonly enough targeted at those people over there who call themselves feminists that we can use it as a stylized fact. Those feminists want to kill all the men and reproduce by self-fertilization, so we can't give them anything they want, like legal equality or reproductive control, or they will eventually get enough power to kill all the men. (The related move is that those people over there want a Bad Thing, so they are Bad People, and we are entitled to ignore, oppress, or simply eliminate them.)

*I'm using the "some people say" move as illustration, not argument.

Obviously, killing all the men seems like a Bad Thing, and there are probably people who call themselves "feminist" who really do want to kill all the men, but that doesn't mean that killing all the men is essential to feminism.

The above is an obviously extreme example, so what about more common arguments? I've heard arguments that a lot of feminists, perhaps a majority, are insufficiently concerned with matters of race, sexual orientation, and gender identity*. Perhaps these arguments are correct, perhaps a majority of feminists are insufficiently concerned with racism, but so what? That would be something that feminists have to correct, not an indictment of feminism itself.

*Look up "Transphobic Exclusive Radical Feminists" or "TERFs"

Just like Marxism and socialism, there really isn't any such thing as feminism: by itself, it's not a coherent ideology; it's a tribal affiliation. I call myself a feminist not because I want to kill all the men or because I don't care about racism; I call myself a feminist because I want to affiliate myself with the tribe that (usually) believes the radical idea that women are people. There are some people who might reject my affiliation for one reason or another. Fair enough: if some feminists define feminism in a way I cannot be (or would not want to be) affiliated with them, then I'm not affiliated with those feminists. But I'm still affiliated with those that accept me. If the first wants to persuade the second to reject me, then they can argue the point without me.

I call myself a socialist, a communist, a Marxist* to assert a tribal affiliation, not to assert any specific ideology. A common response when I declare myself a socialist is to hear that socialism is bad because Stalin and Mao killed millions of people. Leaving aside the truth or context of this claim, even if it were true, so what? If killing millions of people is a Bad Thing, let's take that killing out of socialism. And, in fact, almost all people who call themselves socialists already have taken the killings of millions out of socialism: they argue that Stalin (and to some extent Mao) were at best bad socialists and at worst no more socialist than Hitler was.

*I actually prefer to not call myself a "Marxist" for the same reason that biologists don't like calling themselves "Darwinists" and rocket scientists don't like calling themselves "Newtonists".

I don't mind guys like Ben Garrison above. I think political propaganda in principle a Good Thing. Garrison loves him some Donald, so of course he's going to portray the real opposition as badly as possible. (Here are Khalil Bendib and David Horsey getting their licks in on the other side.) Politics is and will always be just as much about image and emotion as it is about ideas and substance. However, ideas and substance matter — at least to me — so rather than indulge in lazy caricatures or meaningless over-generalization, I want to talk about the actual ideas that socialists have, especially the ideas that this particular socialist has.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Socialized healthcare ate my baby!

the stupid! it burns! April Joy cranks the stupid up to 11 in By a thousand cuts. Ordinary Times hasn't published anything interesting in months, and then they publish this drivel. I'm done with them: even the "best" conservatives just can't escape the stupid.

For the occasional conservative who might stumble here and has has difficulty seeing obvious stupidity, let me explain.

I'm sorry Ms. Joy lost her child. I wouldn't wish that on anyone, however despicable they might be. And I'm sorry for Alfie Evans and his parents. But Joy turns this tragedy into a condemnation of... socialized medicine? Jumping Jesus on a pogo stick! What does socialized medicine have to do with it?

Alfie is going to die. But he's not going to die because the British have allowed "government to control who lives and dies outside of the criminal justice system." Alfie is not going to die because anyone has "[c]ed[ed] control of the well-being of one’s children to the government." Alfie is not going to die because a "faceless bureaucracy [has] unfettered access to your most intimate information, with which they can then do anything, including decide whether you live or die." Alfie is going to die because he has an incurable disease. He is going to die in Britain instead of Italy because even according to the obviously biased source Joy cites, a court of law — not any bureaucracy — has decided it is in the child's best interests to stay in Britain.

There is no connection whatsoever between Alfie and his parents' tragedy and Britain's health care system. Joy does not even allege that Alfie has received substandard care, or is being allowed to die because of resource constraints. His special snowflake parents don't get to do whatever they want with their dying boy, so socialism is bad?

This is beyond wrong. It's burningly stupid. And it's despicable. Shame on Joy for writing it, and shame on Ordinary Times for publishing it. I thought they had standards.

Monday, January 15, 2018

On conservatism

In A Conservative Manifesto, Holly A. Case laments the divergence between modern "conservatism" and the Peter Viereck's 1940 vision of conservatism, But—I'm a Conservative!. Case argues that Viereck espoused a "spiritual" vision of conservatism, as opposed to the crass materialism of the "conservatism" of the 1940s and 1950s. Case quotes Viereck's review of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale to highlight the rupture:
Is it not humorless, or else blasphemous, for this eloquent advocate of Christianity, an unworldly and anti-economic religion, to enshrine jointly as equally sacrosanct: ‘Adam Smith and Ricardo, Jesus and St. Paul?' And why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism in his own camp?
As quoted by Case, Viereck accused the "conservatives of the pocketbook" as divorcing property from moral responsibility and of suborning revolution instead of maintaining stability. If his chief complaint against Marxism had been against "its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," then how could he have seen the nascent conservatism of the 1950s — or what passes for "conservatism" in the first decades of the 21st century — as anything different?

But even Viereck's supposedly more "humanistic" conservatism is absurd and self-contradictory. His conservatism hinges on Law.
The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.
This old atheist's hackles rise when I hear the words, "So much the worse for existence!" For if these "eternal absolutes do not really exist," then they must come from human beings in historically contingent social, political, and economic circumstances. Specifically, those human beings who happen to have the power to enforce "eternal absolutes", and whose first concern must always be the preservation of their power at all costs. Like most self-described conservatives, Viereck suffers from a failure of the imagination. There is a vast middle ground between anarchism and mob rule on the one hand and eternal absolutes (that we must contingently imagine) on the other.

I would agree with Viereck that liberty is as much or more about discipline and restraint than it is about freedom. And I would also agree with Viereck that at least little-ell law is important to maintain discipline and restraint in a society. As an individual who depends on others for my very life, and whose lives depend on me, I want to know what other people believe I and they must and must not do (discipline) and what we may do (freedom). I want these norms to be about the same tomorrow as they are today. A body of little-ell laws, enforced by at least some violence, and subject to a deliberative process of change seems a workable way of establishing, maintaining, and, most importantly, legitimizing these norms. I can assent to the good laws not because they are Law, but because they are good. I can, in theory, tolerate the few bad laws knowing that they are susceptible to change. I do not need to believe the laws are or pretend to be "eternal absolutes"; I need to believe they are good enough for now, and can be made better.

There are excellent objective reasons why we should consider how we do things today one reasonable justification to do things the same way tomorrow, and to go beyond immediate expediency in our social institutions: bounded rationality and rational ignorance, the prisoner's dilemma, asymmetric and imperfect information, not to mention any number of cognitive biases and our abysmal lack of statistical intuition. As the saying goes, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future*, so we have to rely — at least to some extent — on history and tradition.

*Misattributed to Yogi Berra.

But to say that law is useful is not to say that it is transcendent, even in our social imagination. The law is a tool, and however useful a tool, it is not an end in itself. When we allow law to become Law, when we think of the compromises and negotiations we have made to live together in a little more peace today than yesterday as some sort of eternal verities, we limit our legitimate growth as much as we prevent decay. Viereck is clear: "You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal." What can Viereck mean but to condemn the hiding of Jews from the Nazis, the transportation of black slaves to Canada, and the execution of tyrants. The charge that Law itself is an end is nothing but a dishonest tactic to defend the privilege and power of self-appointed Lawgivers.


Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I've been reminded of King's remarks from Letter from a Birmingham Jail rebuking "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." This is my overwhelming sense when I read conservatives such as Viereck, who talk about Law rather than Justice. If there's anything that I can even imagine as an eternal absolute, it is Justice, not Law. Justice is about more than rules, more than just discipline and restraint. Even the most unjust can be disciplined and — at least in some things — restrained. It is possible that discipline and restraint are necessary for Justice, but unlike Law, they cannot be sufficient. In endorsing mere Law, conservatives at best set themselves too low a bar, and at worst argue that the rules matter more than the justice they should serve.


Administrators - a parable after Kafkaby Emrys Westacott
In the beginning, there were only professors and students, and relations between them were very simple. A student would give the professor half of the fee for a course at the first class, and the remainder after the last class. A few poorer students, who could not pay the full amount in cash, would sometimes bring vegetables they had grown, or a fish they had caught, and the professors accepted these graciously. The widow of a former mathematics professor pickled the vegetables and salted the fish before distributing them among the faculty.

As the college grew, so did its reputation, and as more classes were needed, more professors came to teach. To make things easier for the professors, the widow began collecting the fees and depositing them at the local bank. She also began keeping simple records. At some point, no-one could remember exactly when, the professors agreed among themselves to pay her a stipend for the services she provided.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Hard work and luck

In Communist China, I was taught that hard work would bring success. In the land of the American dream, I learned that success comes through good luck, the right slogans, and monitoring your own—and others’—emotions.

Puzhong Yao. The Western Elite from a Chinese Perspective

Monday, January 01, 2018

Black Mirror Season 4

Don't get me wrong: if season 4 had been Black Mirror's first, I would have called it one of the greatest science fiction shows ever. It's very very good. With the exception of "Crocodile" (a hot mess, with nothing to redeem it, and should, like "National Anthem", simply be skipped), the remaining episodes live with the best of The Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.

And yet...

The first three seasons of Black Mirror had a theme: some tech — usually something we think we might like now — made the world a horrible place, and some ordinary person was crushed by this technology. Only Season 1's "National Anthem" (terrible) and Season 2's "The Waldo Moment" (funny, but not horrifying) depart from this trope.

Season 4 completely abandons that theme for more conventional science fiction plots. Instead of a technological dystopia, three episodes, "USS Callister", "Arkangel", and "Black Museum", feature some one-off technology with unfortunate consequences for its early adopters. "Metalhead" is a post-apocalyptic chase thriller, but with little if any commentary on the present. "Hang the DJ" is a cute romantic comedy in an unusual setting, despite brushing the enslavement and murder of 2000 sentient beings under the carpet.

I don't know that Charlie Booker could have sustained the first three seasons' dystopian trope. Although still excellent overall, season 4 feels like a retreat into conventional science fiction.

Black Mirror is dead. Long live Black Mirror!

Crush the Republicans? Sure, but...

In How to crush Trump, Ryan Cooper observes that
[I]n 2020, Trump must be crushed at the ballot box. His corrupt administration must be thoroughly investigated, and any criminal acts punished.
That could happen.
More importantly, the economic base of Republican plutocracy — Wall Street, monopolist corporations, and idle rich heirs and heiresses — must also be crushed. Monopolies must be broken up, taxes on the rich and corporations dramatically increased, and the size, profitability, and power of Wall Street sharply reduced with cricket bat regulations.
Not gonna happen, or at least the Democratic party won't do it. Where do you think the Democrats' money comes from? The Democrats are just as beholden to Wall Street as the Republicans.

More importantly, politics is class struggle. The capitalist class was checked in the 20th century by the professional-managerial class, but this class is barely a class (they have lost a lot of class consciousness), and even as a class, they are cowardly and weak. Even as a coherent class, the PMC is just as afraid of the workers having any power, and they know that the firm, not the government, can best restrain the power of the working class.

The chief difference between the Democrats and the Republicans is that the Democrats are less racist and sexist than the Republicans. The Democrats are the party of and for the 1 and 0.1 percent of women and people of color; they are not the party of working people.