Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Obama sells out the women

Family planning money may be dropped:
House Democrats are likely to jettison family planning funds for the low-income from an $825 billion economic stimulus bill, officials said late Monday, following a personal appeal from President Barack Obama at a time the administration is courting Republican critics of the legislation.
I love the smell of bipartisanship in the morning.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Natural allies

"Not natural allies" does not mean "necessarily enemies". In the "lesser of two evils" sense, I would definitely choose left-wing capitalism over right-wing, just as I would choose liberal Christianity over fundamentalist. But I'm an atheist, not a liberal Christian, and there are elements of liberal Christianity inherently inimical to atheism. In just the same sense there are elements of left-wing capitalism — the capitalism — that are inherently inimical to communism.

In a global society dominated by right-wing capitalism, there are narrow, specific issues where the thinking and politics of communists agrees with left-wing capitalists: e.g. our opposition to sexism and racism and the erosion of bourgeois rights.

But there's a real difference too. While communist and left-wing capitalist intellectuals agree that sexism is bad, we differ sharply on what to do about it. The left-wing capitalist wants to make sure that access to the bourgeoisie is not arbitrarily restricted by sex. The communist wants to eliminate all exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, even exploitation that is not sexist.

When it comes to identifying, denouncing and raising awareness of a lot of issues, communists are on the same side as left-wing capitalist intellectuals. When it comes to the solution, however, there are sharp, irreconcilable differences between communists and left-wing capitalists. Left-wing intellectuals want to change the political superstructure only in such a way that it does not affect the basic economic foundations of our society. Communist intellectuals want to change the political superstructure radically enough that it can change the economic foundations of our society, or more precisely to eliminate the underlying contradictions of capitalism that are becoming a fetter on economic productivity.

To do so, we have to eliminate exploitation, not merely establish that the "right" to exploit others is free of arbitrary discrimination.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Communism and the left

Communism is not a "left-wing" political philosophy. Communism is on a whole different axis than the left-right split in contemporary politics.

The left-right split is about what kind of capitalism we want. The right wing wants an authoritarian, force-based, racist, national-imperialist capitalism; the left wing wants a more subtle, internationalist, "meritocratic" capitalism. Make no mistake: although they're both inside capitalism, the left-right split is very sharp and sometimes violent.

The focus of the left on identity politics and multiculturalism supports this thesis. The goal of quintessentially left-wing identity politics — for women, blacks, gays, immigrants, atheists, etc. — focuses on allowing individuals from these groups to enter the bourgeoisie. The goal of "multiculturalism" is to make the bourgeoisie an international class, to defend non-Western social and political ideas — such as the subjugation of women under Islam — that allow leaders of cultures outside the imperial nations to participate in the international bourgeoisie. The bourgeois left argument against colonialism is not that exploitation is bad, it's that foreign exploitation is bad.

It is a mistake, I think, to count left-wing bourgeois intellectuals as natural allies in the struggle for communism; calling communism a "left-wing" political philosophy makes this mistake seductive.

Liberal theology

Larry Moran on liberal theology:
The "sophisticated" version of Christianity that [liberal theologians] proclaim in public is just a sham designed to make them look as though they accept science and all its implications. ... [A]ccording to what we know about the natural world, humans are not special in any way and life does not have a purpose. There are very few believers who can stomach those ideas, hence their science and their religion are in conflict.
Larry Moran praises Seeing and Believing, Jerry A. Coyne's review of Saving Darwin and Only A Theory.

Quotation of the day

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

— Richard P. Feynman

Friday, January 23, 2009

Crisis and the Overaccumulation of Capital

Crisis and the Overaccumulation of Capital:
In all these instances [of crises] the solution to overaccumulation is devaluation. By reducing the prices of commodities, closing factories, firing workers, cutting wages and benefits, writing down debts and slashing real estate values capitalism can devalue capital in all of its stages. This process of devaluation — this violent purging of the system — is the necessary antidote to the problem of overaccumulation. This is what a crisis is- a drastic process of devaluation.

Obama and torture

Barack Obama will, of course, "fail" by socialist and communist criteria. He promises jobscapitalist jobs — not democratic, public control of production. He promises a stronger, more competent imperial presence — he wants to win the wars Bush has started — not to dismantle the imperialist system. Obama is overtly, explicitly and enthusiastically a supporter of the capitalist-imperialist system. Quelle suprise.

Barack Obama will, however, fail by liberal and progressive Democratic standards. Or, more precisely, Obama will succeed by liberal and progressive Democratic standards only because those standards have sunk so low.

It's been a clear tactic of the Republican party for the last 40 years that they're not afraid to lose elections. They know an electoral loss is just a setback, not a defeat. They are defeated only when they have to give ideological ground, and they're willing to sacrifice elections to maintain their ideological ground. The Democratic party, in contrast, constantly cedes ideological ground to win elections.

One critical ideological goal of the Bush administration was to establish absolute executive authority. The Bush administration tortured people not just because they're sadistic bastards — and they tap into the sadistic tendencies in the population — but also to establish that they could torture people and get away with it.

I'm of course pleased that the Obama administration will not torture people. But it's not enough to forswear torture just because Obama himself happens to be a (relatively) nice guy. We must forswear torture because it is illegal and has real consequences and punishments. As we have seen in the last eight years, we cannot always count on having a nice person as president. To borrow a metaphor from Christianity, we should not just uphold the law, we should fear it. (At least today; we'd like to get to where people uphold the law out of rational apprehension of its benefit, but that will take quite a long time. In the meantime, we're stuck with the system of enforcement.) We must not only condemn rape and murder, we must punish rapists and murderers or our condemnation is just empty rhetoric.

Susan Brownmiller makes this point sharply in Men, Women and Rape. When the book was written, rape was prosecuted and punished only primarily when the rape infringed on the property rights of the husband and/or father. This pattern of prosecution undermined the moral condemnation of rape as a crime of violence against a woman as a person and made the moral condemnation empty rhetoric.

It is not enough that Obama's administration will not torture people. If Obama allows those who did in fact torture people to escape without punishment he is just as guilty of suborning torture as the men of the early 20th century (and to some extent many of today's men) were guilty of suborning rape by not prosecuting and punishing rapists as criminals against a woman's person.

It's important to understand that all factions of the bourgeoisie want absolute executive power; the controversy is only over how that power should be exercised and — to some extent — how openly or covertly to establish and maintain that power. Obama would not have received the financial and ideological support of the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois press had he not clearly promised to maintain the executive power appropriated by the Bush administration and also promised to exercise that power more effectively and more palatably.

Update: Matt Bors expresses the same idea more succinctly.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Quotation of the day

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. [emphasis added]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Quotation of the day

The fact is that the work which improves the condition of mankind, the work which extends knowledge and increases power and enriches literature and elevates thought, is not done to secure a living. It is not the work of slaves driven to their tasks either by the task, by the taskmaster, or by animal necessity. It is the work of men who somehow find a form of work that brings a security for its own sake and a state of society where want is abolished.

— Henry George, Progress and Poverty, 1879

Quoted by Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” 1967
h/t to Grégoire

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The tyrants du jour

Commenter Regan asks:
I can't help but to think that when the revolution occurs, what will stop the people leading it from becoming the tyrants de jour? There is no reason for the new leaders to surrender the power back to the people that so empowered them.
This is a good question. Obviously, there are no guarantees: you pays your money and you takes your chances.

But there are some reasons why it's in the best interests of the revolutionary power to forswear tyranny and work to the benefit of the people. Tyranny by brute force, in opposition to the social and psychological structures in the masses are very unstable. Brute force tyranny is most often seen in imperial domination, and usually requires massive support from the dominating imperial power. A "successful" tyranny requires some level of socially constructed consent of the masses.

Marx's great insight was that all revolutions are driven by economic circumstances; a successful revolution is the resolution of contradictions* between the new means of production and the political superstructure and social production relations resting on the old means of production. A successful communist revolution will be the same: a resolution of the fundamental capitalist contradiction between socialized production and private ownership. Economic contradictions have an enormous effect on social relations: no amount of propaganda or indoctrination can save any social structure when it is fundamentally in contradiction with the physical means of production.

We can look back on the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, especially the American and French Revolutions. These revolutions introduced capitalism, and capitalism has... ahem... some serious flaws, but there is no doubt that the bourgeois capitalist governments were a dramatic improvement to a large number of the non-bourgeois masses relative to monarchism. Why? Why did, for example, George Washington not become King? Why did the French revolution devolve into the Reign of Terror and the restoration of the Monarchy, and how did the modern bourgeois French republic finally evolve?

Nascent capitalism started to affect the social-psychological-economic dialectic before the bourgeois revolutions. The social changes wrought by this dialectic formed an important basis of support for the bourgeois revolutions, a basis that could not successfully be discarded. The Americans preserved "bourgeois rights" and prevailed; the French initially abandoned bourgeois rights, leading to the Reign of Terror and the restoration of the monarchy. It took until 1870 to create the Third Republic in 1870, which preserved bourgeois rights and thus was able to survive until the German invasion.

It's important to understand that neither the Russian nor the Chinese revolutionary governments were brute force tyrannies: both enjoyed broad popular support without which they could not have survived more than a dozen years. They really did deliver on a lot of their socialist promises, and the social and psychological groundwork laid by nascent socialism were an important basis of support for the governments. To the extent that the Russian and Chinese revolutionary governments unjustly persecuted people, they did so at the behest and with the consent of most of the people — had they not enjoyed popular support, their persecutions would have caused another revolution. Even Stalin, who probably perpetrated the most unjust persecution, is still enormously popular in present-day Russia. (We hear almost exclusively from the Chinese intelligentsia, not the people. The Chinese intelligentisia dislikes Mao for good reason: the pre- and post-revolutionary intelligentsia enjoyed and continue to enjoy enormous economic and social privilege, which could not be maintained under socialism. But Mao seems to be popular among the few voices of the peasantry and proletariat we manage to hear.)

Nascent socialism is already making itself felt in the social-psychological-economic dialectic. There are many socialist rights already embedded into the social constructs and psychological character of individuals in capitalist societies: the contradiction between social production and private ownership is a powerful force in this dialectic. Regan notes that Canada "is arguably soft communism in action." Unions, business regulation, government health care, economic stimulus: all of these ideas are partial and incomplete resolutions of the contradiction of capitalism.

(And all of these ideas are bitterly fought by the capitalists (with a lot of success over the past 30-40 years) because they know these ideas undermine popular support for their own privilege. During the Great Depression, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon voiced the "pure" capitalist position: "Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farms, liquidate real estate. ... [Panic] will purge the rottenness out of the system. High costs of living and high living will come down. People will work harder, live a more moral life. Values will be adjusted, and enterprising people will pick up the wrecks from less competent people.")

A successful socialist revolution will not come because some small, secretive group manages to seize power. A socialist revolution will come only when the socialist rights already embedded in the population undermine confidence in the existing bourgeois capitalist state, and the people, on the basis of those socialist rights, give their support in large numbers to a socialist organization. A revolutionary government must rise to power on those socialist rights; if it subsequently ignores them, the government will fail almost immediately.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

The revolutionary state

As I see it, there are four political stages to the implementation of communism:

The revolutionary state, which takes power from the capitalist state and wrenches social evolution and development away from refining relations of exploitation to building relations of mutual benefit and builds the foundation of literal participatory democracy.

The revolutionary state must quickly give power to the socialist state, which uses state power directly to manage a large portion of the economy using scientific expertise.

The socialist state will evolve over time to the communist state as more and more capitalist commodity relations are socialized and transformed into mutually beneficial relations.

The communist state will evolve over time into anarcho-communism, when social relations and individual psychology have evolved to the point where maintenance of mutually beneficial relations of production become internalized; at this point, coercive state power will no longer be required.

The revolutionary state is, of course, the most problematic and perilous stage of the transition. There are a lot of ways to go wrong, and only a few ways to go right. Indeed, a revolution is so dangerous that only the catastrophic collapse of capitalism gives us sufficient justification for actually implementing a revolution.

Capitalism is, however, beginning to fail catastrophically, and has already become a substantial fetter on human productivity. We don't have a choice about whether or not capitalism will fail; we have a choice only in what will follow capitalism: a regression to feudalism and monarchical tyranny or an advance to socialism.

The revolutionary state must racially alter the economic foundation of relations of exploitation: the commoditization of labor. Socialize residential housing, thus eliminating rent. Eliminate finance capitalism by becoming the sole source of finance capital. (The current capitalist government is implementing this step even now.) Take over the provision of goods and services necessary for civilized survival: food, shelter, water, sewage, education, ordinary medical treatment, etc. The threat of starvation, homelessness, lack of medical treatment, etc. can no longer serve as an incentive to work. Lacking the threat of starvation, the requirement to work will have to be enforced directly. The revolutionary government will simply make explicit and conscious the de facto conditions under capitalism: everyone has to contribute as a matter of physical necessity.

Politically, the revolutionary state can virtually eliminate the actualization of certain pernicious ideas: sexism, racism, and religious extremism. It's neither necessary nor desirable to censor and suppress speech; it's necessary only to make acts of discrimination illegal and vigorously enforce such laws, enact laws that promote sexual and racial equality (especially sexual equality by giving women absolute, uncompromised control over their own bodies), and use the power of the government to educate people that racism, sexism and religious extremism are wrong. (This means the revolutionary government should actively promote not just secularism, but also atheism.)

Most importantly, the revolutionary government will have to put the success of the revolution and the transition to the socialist state in the hands of the people. The revolution must immediately begin transferring control over the instruments of state power — the police and the army — to the people themselves, and they must complete the transfer before the revolutionary state ossifies into a bureaucratic tyranny — in no more, I think, than ten years at the outside. The people have been kept in ignorance and superstition by millennia of ruling-class and religious propaganda; the revolutionary state must conduct a massive education campaign to prepare people for self-rule, and begin setting up truly democratic institutions.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Capitalism, communism and free markets

RedDali argues:

You hear that the free market distributes resources efficiently and productively - why does it not?

You shouldn't believe everything you hear.

First of all, "efficiency" by itself is ambiguous: efficiency must be specifically defined by its inputs and outputs: efficient at what? Free markets are efficient at producing goods if we define the input as cost and the output as surplus value. The "most efficient" free market enterprise minimizes its labor costs while maximizing the socially necessary labor time devoted to the production of goods.

There's a fly in the ointment, though. Labor generates surplus value, the difference between the socially necessary labor time to produce labor power and the amount of socially necessary labor time generated by labor power. If on average it actually costs 4 hours of labor to produce the food, housing, clothing, etc. for a worker to generate 8 hours of labor, then each worker will generate 4 hours of surplus labor per day.

Since labor itself is a commodity, workers under a free market will be paid with 4 hours worth of goods (or the equivalent in money) for each 8 hours labored. Sooner or later someone has to consume that surplus value. But whom? Under a free market, everything is a commodity; everyone receives only the cost of their labor; the surplus value would be wasted.

Every economic system must exempt something from free market commodity relations to distribute the surplus value. Slavery exempts the ownership of people; feudalism exempts the ownership of land; capitalism exempts the ownership of capital. Under capitalism, the price of capital is related not to its cost — the socially necessary labor time to create the capital — but to its value, the amount of surplus labor generated using that capital. This relationship cannot be achieved using just free market economics.

Socialism — the transition between capitalism and communism — exempts labor itself from commodity relations. Communism will be achieved when all commodity relations become at least trivial, if not completely eliminated.

What is slavery?

Blue Linchpin asks: What is Slavery? and an actual discussion breaks out in the comments.

Monday, January 12, 2009

No “Common Ground” with Bigot Rick Warren

No “Common Ground” with Bigot Rick Warren
Why I Will Be Protesting on MLK Day

by Sunsara Taylor

When Barack Obama invited Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback mega-church and author of The Purpose Driven Life, to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, some raised their voices in protest. And when it was announced that Warren would be the key-note speaker at the historic Ebenezer Church in Atlanta for Martin Luther King Day, just the day before the inauguration, a few objected to this as well. But all too many told people to just calm down, drink the Obama’Laid of “common ground,” and reach out their arms to this pastor who is nothing more than a Christian fascist in a Hawaiian shirt.

Rick Warren is no “moderate” and he is not progressive. He may be the “new face” of evangelicalism, but he doesn’t represent a new content. It is hard to think of someone more antithetical to the struggle and sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement than Rick Warren, a man who has dedicated his life to taking away people’s rights!

I want to give a shout-out to the clear-thinking organizations – Black LGBT Coalition, SPARK Reproductive Justice, GLBT Atlanta, and World Can’t Wait among others – who have called for a protest in Atlanta on MLK Day and explain to all why I will be flying down to join them.

First off, Warren is a biblical literalist. If you’re foggy on what that means, flip open the Bible to Leviticus 20:13 where it commands the killing of homosexuals, or to Exodus 21:15 where children who hit their parents are condemned to death, or Deuteronomy 13:13-19 where God requires his followers to “attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock” if even one person among them worships the “wrong” god. Does any of this represent “common ground” you want to be standing on?

Second, in line with Biblical scripture, Warren is working to criminalize homosexuality. Not only does his church refuse membership to gays, but he campaigned against gay marriage in California and lent his support to a pastor in Uganda who published the names and home addresses of gay people and advocates measures that would lock them in prison. Exactly what part of this murderous bigotry should progressive people find “common ground” with?

Third, Warren unapologetically demands the subordination of women, that is half of humanity, to men. His church’s web site quotes 1st Corinthians: “[T]he head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.” But that’s not all. In his drive to ensure that women are stripped of the right to control their own reproduction, Rick Warren actually compares abortion to the Jewish Holocaust! The fact that anyone can morally equate women who choose abortion with the Nazis—who systematically demonized, terrorized and then exterminated millions of Jews—is astounding. But the fact that pro-choice and progressive people can advocate “common ground” with this is deadly self-delusion.

Fourth, Warren promotes the biblical story of creation as the literal truth, and denies Darwin’s theory of evolution. This, again, legitimizes a powerful and stubborn anti-rational movement that is trying to suppress both evolutionary theory and a scientific approach to the world more generally. What “common ground” can there be between the promoters and the suppressors of rational thought and science?

As for Warren’s much-touted “concern over HIV in Africa,” this has got to be the biggest sham yet! In the name of “fighting AIDS,” Warren has lent his prestige and his resources to dismantling the very programs that had begun to reduce AIDS infections. In Uganda, for instance, through broad-based sex education and condom distribution, the rate of AIDS was reduced by 10% through the ’90s. But, after Bush’s PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] program—which Rick Warren is heavily tied into—was implemented, those trends quickly reversed. Warren and his religious allies disparaged the distribution of condoms in favor of promoting the widely discredited “abstinence only” policies. One of his pastor friends actually took condoms away from college students and set them on fire “in the name of Jesus.” The real effect in Uganda has been that HIV has started to rise again, causing massive unnecessary suffering, stigma and death. Any takers for “common ground” on killing Africans who have sex?

It’s time to stop drinking the Obama’Laid! The “common ground” being brokered by Obama is doing nothing to bring Rick Warren and his ilk closer to the interests of humanity. And the invitation to Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson, a gay Episcopal bishop, does nothing to change this; it just gets people to let their guard down. This whole “common ground” approach just lends legitimacy to and normalizes Warren’s deadly religious bigotry. Standing on this “common ground” is leading progressive people who genuinely care about women, gays, science, and AIDS in Africa to capitulate, to give up principle, and to accept things that they never would’ve accepted from someone like Pat Robertson or George Bush.

The fact that Rick Warren is the best that Obama can come up with to speak about “purpose” and “morality” reveals the utter moral and ideological bankruptcy of not only him, but the whole imperialist system he represents. Time is up. Humanity needs liberation and we need morality and purpose that correspond to that; to overcoming grinding poverty and exploitation, establishing equality and mutual respect between men and women, ending racism and national oppression throughout the world, fostering critical thinking and science among all people, and unleashing art and the imagination unshackled from religious ignorance and superstition. This is communist morality and revolutionary purpose, the exact opposition of compromise and conciliation with bigot preachers and imperialist presidents.

Sunsara Taylor writes for Revolution Newspaper and sits on the Advisory Board of The World Can't Wait - Drive Out the Bush Regime.

Reprinted with permission.

Sunsara is speaking at campuses around the country to promote Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. For more information, or to invite Sunsara to speak at your campus or other venue, contact Joan Hirsch, Tour Coordinator at (917) 520-6963 or

Liberal Christianity

[This essay by DagoodS is much too good to be buried in the comments on this essay.]

Liberal Christianity is part of the problem because it uses the same erroneous methodology as Fundamental Christianity and thus is completely ineffectual when confronted by it.

Both use the method of first determining what God they would like (based upon upbringing, society, and interaction with others) and then looking for justification within the Bible, or popular authors supporting the particular Christian’s belief, or within their own minds if necessary. Each takes the same basic elements (the Bible, a God) and then liberally applies, “I think ____” by mode of interpretation to mash their particular God to fit the mold they desire.

Want a God who supports homosexuality? It is there for the taking by this method. Want one who hates homosexuals? Equally available. Hell? Sure—you can have it or not. All one has to do is spin the verses in the direction desired and voila—they unsurprisingly have their god.

While a Liberal may make social decisions more closely reflective of a non-theist, this resulted from the world’s secularization rather than of any actual doctrinally determined shift. Intel, iPod and the Internet have created far more Liberals than study and a new method for determining what actually exists. The method remained the same; just found a more-pleasing God to justify living in the 21st Century.

Thus when confronted by Fundamentalists, the Liberal has no place to retreat except to say, “We think a different determination is needed.” Neither can provide a method to demark inspiration vs. non-inspired writings. Neither can provide a method to use the naturalistic world to make supernatural determinations. Neither can provide a method to demark what is myth and what is history within the Christian framework.

Each picks-and-chooses what they desire to be “true” and what they desire to be “false.” They both happen to approach the same tree and argue over who is going to pick the best apples. Both unknowingly picking from a tree that produces no apples, and unknowingly are arguing over non-existent apples! Because their own method does not allow for such a possibility.

Until Liberal Christianity can develop its own theology, and its own method, it will be cursed with the genes of its parent—Fundamental Christianity. It may be more gracious to the poor; it may be more open to diverse lifestyles; it may allow bikinis at camp—but its DNA retains the same wrong reasons for doing so. Not out of self-determination of humanity, but to follow some God it cannot demonstrate exists. The Parent Fundamentalist acts in a way to please their god; the Child Liberal rebels against the parent and then finds itself using the same terms, the same songs, the same justifications for their own lifestyle.

Sure the Parent will not touch alcohol, and the Child has no problem with a glass of wine—but each are defining what they will/will not drink by their interpretation of a god. They each determine what they desire regarding alcohol and then justify that desire through the medium of Christianity.

I have lost count of the occasions when I have confronted fundamentalists with lack of consistent methodology while the liberals cheer me on. “Go get ‘im!” “That’s great!” “Wow, you sure know your stuff.”

But when I turn the same microscope and scalpel on the liberal, asking for the same methodology I hear cries of pain. “Why ya picking on me?” “What have we done to you?” “Why can’t you let a person live-and-let-live?” “Aren’t we on the same team?”

Did they think I was asking these questions because I was “angry” at their parents? That I was doing it as some sort of retribution to support the Liberal? I was doing it because it is a problem I see! In both.

I understand Liberals would like to differentiate themselves from fundamentalists. They find the comparison distasteful. Until they can show a difference at the root of the methods, I see them remaining part of the problem. Yes, part of the solution (the more who vote for gay marriage the better, regardless of theistic belief) but still part of the problem. Vote for gay marriage because it is the correct human thing to do—not because one wants to ascribe to a god the approval of such unions.

[DagoodS, the author of this essay, can be read at Thoughts from a Sandwich]

Sunday, January 11, 2009

On Privilege

A commenter at The Apostate remarks:
My OPINION…I am not trained in sociology or psychology…and speaking from the point of view of a once-married gay man: is that straight guys revel in their privilege. Most of them don’t realize the shear amount of bennies they get for just being born heterosexual with a penis. They just go along with it as ‘how things are’.

As they age quite a few realize that they’ve had it good and some change for the better, but most will begin to defend their privilege and refuse to acknowledge that the deference they expect isn’t earned and is a sort of cultural mistake.

I'm a straight, white, christian (well, christian-appearing) man, and trust me: we don't receive "deference". What we do get is that — unlike non-straight, non-white, non-christian people and women — we're not routinely and constantly fucked over just because we're non-straight, etc. It's clearly wrong to fuck people over just because of their looks, sex or sexuality, but it's not like we SWCM are handed a free pass in life just because we're white, etc. Most of us are routinely and constantly fucked over because the capitalist system routinely fucks most people over on general principles.

Of course, it's really important to remember that members of hyper-oppressed groups are in fact hyper-oppressed. A far larger proportion of black people, for example, live in poverty because in addition to fucking most people over on general principles, the American capitalist system fucks black people over more and has been fucking them over more for centuries. The same is true for women, gay people and members of other racial/cultural minorities.

The difference is subtle but important: with regard to all discrimination, including race, sex and sexual-orientation, the point is not to take away some "undeserved" privilege from SWCM, but to extend the freedom from hyper-oppression and hyper-exploitation to everyone.

It's also important that the capitalist system requires that some group be hyper-exploited. Ideally (according to capitalist ideals) everyone should be hyper-exploited, but that's usually not politically and socially viable. But someone needs to clean the toilets and change the diapers and it's a lot easier to find some marginal group and oppressively push them to the bottom so that cleaning toilets for subsistence wages is a matter of economic necessity to this group. Capitalists will resist civil rights with every weapon at their disposal. And at best when one group receives equal status under capitalism, the capitalists will simply find another group — such as immigrants — to hyper-exploit.

Because only a small number of people can rise to the capital-owning class — and only a slightly larger number can rise to the labor aristocracy — equal status under capitalism still means that most members of presently marginalized groups will still be fucked over, but they'll be fucked over on general principles rather than because they are in a formerly marginalize group. This is an improvement, of course, but we can set our bar higher: no one should by oppressed and hyper-exploited.

Under capitalism, members of marginalized groups will never be "one of us" to the capital-owning class or the labor aristocracy. Only a select few will even be granted some capitalist privilege. And equal entry into the upper and middle classes just dooms some other group to exclusion and marginalization.

Communism, on the other hand, is much better.

First, communists — at least this communist — would use the brute force of state power to not only prohibit all discrimination but also to correct the effects of centuries or millennia of discrimination and oppression. No bullshit, no equivocation: equal rights for all and affirmative action where necessary shoved down the throats of the bigots without apology and without compromise.

Second, by eliminating class distinctions, communism eliminates the necessity of oppressing any group in order to hyper-exploit them and give them the (literally) shit jobs.

If what you want is to break into the small fraction of people that have capitalist privilege, standing on the necks of your brothers and sisters who don't have the wherewithal to break in, then, by all means, satisfy yourself with reforming capitalism. If what you want is just to say, "Hey, I personally am being exploited, but it's nice to know that someone else who looks like me can break through," well, I'm sorry to say you're an idiot.

If, however, you want equal rights for everyone and freedom from exploitation from everyone, make common cause with the communists.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Democratic Party

The Democrats are to the Republicans what Vichy France was to the Nazis.

Everything you know is wrong

Talking with DBB reveals very clearly a new direction in my thinking: Everything the bourgeoisie and their government tells us is wrong — on the rare occasions they're right, they're right only by accident and they'll soon correct that. Everything I thought I knew has changed, been turned upside down by this new paradigm.

There are no abstract standards of justice: there are only competing interests. And everything the bourgeoisie says and does, especially when they're talking about justice and rights, is said and done to further the interests of the bourgeoisie as a class. Everything. Without exception.

(Which is why, fundamentally, communism is about securing and promoting the interests of the proletariat, not implementing some abstract, metaphysical notion of "justice".)

The most important, fundamental strategy in sales is ABC: Always Be Closing. Always be manipulating the customer into making decisions that moves the sale closer to completion. The technique most often used to close is to frame the decision between alternatives either both beneficial to sale or where one alternative is clearly not a viable choice ("Would you like to talk now, or would you like to make an appointment to talk later?" or, "Would you like the undercoating, or do you want the bottom to fall out of your car?") Sometimes both techniques can be combined: Obama or McCain?

This framing issue dominates bourgeois politics: Invade Iraq or continue sanctions? Go to war with Hamas or continue the siege? Islamofascism or good ol' American values? Welfare or jobs? Democrat or Republican? Bailout or chaos and looting in the streets?

The fundamental psychological and social issue, then, is breaking out of bourgeois framing of the social and political issues of the day. It's important to get out of the frame of which faction of the bourgeoisie to support, and start framing the issue as: Whose interests are being furthered and secured? Your own, or the interests of the rich?

It's especially difficult for people in the labor aristocracy to break out of bourgeois framing, because we're being bought off with the labor and wealth of the truly oppressed people of the world. It's perhaps a little easier for me: I have no college degree, and I've always been an atheist and iconoclast. I'm not really "one of us"; even in a temporary contraction I'm the first to be pushed down into the proletariat or the unemployed. I know first hand the fragility and unreliability of blood money. But 90% of the present labor aristocracy are destined for the bottom; only those who can flatter and charm the obscenely wealthy will survive the coming economic cataclysm with their middle-class positions secure.

Everything you know is wrong. Everything you've been told is a lie.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The fallacy of moral equivalence

Much is made of Hamas supposed intentions to destroy Israel. Even if true (and whether this intention exists is controversial), it's completely irrelevant.

What is relevant is that the residents of Gaza, human beings every one, are being denied ordinary civil rights by Israel and Egypt, agents of US imperialism. They are neither citizens of their own sovereign state, protected by international law, nor citizens of Israel, afforded rights and privileges under Israeli law. The right to be a citizen of a sovereign state is a basic civil right, protected (IIRC) by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Moreover, Gaza is surrounded by hostile states and their access to the sea has been blockaded. They are utterly dependent on Israel for the basic means of subsistence: food, water, electricity and trade, and Israel has been using their control of these basic necessities as an instrument of war.

When a people are being objectively oppressed, they have a right — even a duty — to violently resist. And, so long as they are in fact being oppressed and are indeed resisting, it is not meaningful to criticize any element of their ideology.

People are responsible for their acts, not their beliefs. So long as they are objectively being oppressed, any violent acts must be treated as legitimate resistance. Even if Hamas shouted from the rooftops that all left-handed redheads must die, they are not morally culpable for their acts so long as they kill only left-handed redheads who are actually oppressing them.

Blaming the victims, even a little bit, for their own oppression is as morally contemptible as blaming the Jews of the Warsaw ghetto for resisting the Nazi oppression, even thought there are in fact abhorrent elements of Jewish ideology.

More on socialist economics

DBB drills down into the gory details of socialist economics:
Ok, I understand now your price setting for widgets, but what about the ad agency? Or IT work? Or anything else where what you make is a unique entity, rather than a mass produced item?
Most service industries can operate on a straight time-cost basis.

And as for materials - it seems the labor cost would not necessarily be appropriate in terms of hours - what about scarcity? If the material is gold, for instance, the labor cost first varies on the quality of the mine - it takes more labor to get gold out of an old one. But then I suppose that is covered by your formula. But what about the fact that you can use all of the hours you want, if there is no gold left in the mountains, you can't get any more. Then you are stuck with the finite amount of gold in existence, and there is no labor aside from shipping costs if you want to buy it. How, then, is the price set if you can't use labor hours to set it? Labor hours to move a lead brick are probably identical to the hours to move a gold brick, and yet you really can't price the two the same, can you?

Gold is not really a good example, since its use-value is limited; useful only in electronics and jewelry. And the issue is not paying for transportation per se.

Under socialist economics decisions about allocating scarce resources are generally made politically, not economically. I'll talk about specific political mechanisms in another series, but the fundamental premise of socialist economics is that by and large people get together like grown-ups and make social decisions about how to allocate scarce, finite resources.

Under capitalism, economic decisions about how to allocate scarce resources optimize profit, the ability to exploit surplus labor. The profit optimization is only indirectly related to maximizing use-value; near equilibrium (or under adverse disequilibria, such as depressions) the profit motive doesn't optimize use-value at all. Only socialized, political allocation of resources has a chance of systematically optimizing use-value, even near equilibrium.

DBB has more questions.
I understand better the notion of how prices can be calculated, but I still wonder how you can come to the ultimate number. Is it the average of all shoemakers or just some ideal shoemaker?
I assume we're still talking about the extended economy; in the extended economy there is no "ultimate" number. Each individual producer's price is capped by his own actual labor time (or the actual labor time of the group). We can also use more sophisticated price-setting mechanisms, such as marginal cost, to provide temporary, limited incentives for efficiency.

An endeavor can be part of the subsistence (or fully socialized) economy only where the socially necessary labor time, a statistical abstraction, can be calculated. There are a number of statistical tricks, but basically it's going to be something near the mean of all individual producers.

I mean, what if basically every shoemaker takes five hours to make a shoe, but there's some mutant shoemaker out there that actually can make one in an hour that is of the same quality. So it ends up that the price is set to a maximum of five hours (is each hour a "dollar"?) for a shoe.

Now this mutant shoemaker can, in secret, spend five hours making five shoes and then lie and tell the government inspector that he really took him 25 hours to make those shoes. Now he spent five hours of his own labor and he, after selling his shoes, has 25 hours of labor he can spend on other items. So in essence he just got to charge five times the labor he expended on a shoe. Is that ok in the system? Or is there somehow that could be stopped?

This is indeed the central "problem" of a labor-time-based extended economy. But how much of a problem is it really? Our mutant shoemaker has to at least pretend to work the extra hours: We can still have auditors and various political/legal checks to ensure basic factual honesty.

If everyone is "slacking", then first of all it's at least fair. But even a few non-slackers will tend to have a positive feedback effect, since their products will be cheaper than their competitors: the biggest slackers (with the highest prices) will be the first to go out of business.

There will always be a few people slacking. Not optimal, but limited by definition.

Also, I wonder generally about wealth - even with a tight communist system, some people could save up their currency of hours, invest it, earn interest on it, while others could blow it all on WWF Pay Per View or whatever. So while no one would be dirt poor, in that everyone would have all of the necessities in life, you could still have rich or even filthy rich people, if not within one generation, within several, as those who save pass on their wealth through inheritance and so on. Would that present a problem?

You're getting a little ahead of yourself; we're talking about early-stage socialism here, not late-stage communism. So forgive me if I'm a little vague.

Generally speaking, saving is considered hoarding under communism; savings are kept not individually, but as a society, with political controls. Interest is one of the three great evils of capitalism (along with rent and profit), and is likely to be eliminated even in early- or mid-stage socialism. And inheritance is right out.

More importantly, early-stage communism rests on having conditions of substantial abundance and surplus, precisely those conditions which undermine the scarcity mechanics of capitalism and which early-stage socialism can create more effectively. At a certain point, hoarding material wealth will become as ridiculous as hoarding air.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Democratic party grows a spine

Psych! Reid refuses to seat Franken.

Here's a perfect opportunity to get a thumb in the eye of the Republican party, seating a Democrat senator who has clearly won the race, instead of waiting for the outcome of legal challenges that are likely to fail.

But no: even when they're clearly right, the majority Democratic party yet again cowers in fear before the disgraced, repudiated Republican minority. If there were just one Republican holding elective office, every Democratic politician would be frantically clawing their way to the head of the line to lick his ass.

The Democratic party has clearly resigned its membership in phylum chordata; how soon will they depart the community of multicellular organisms?

Is it any wonder I've gone communist?

The dialectic of the social and psychological

Psychology and social/political constructs are dialectically related: our social constructs affect our psychology, and our psychology affects our social constructs: they feed back into each other. We can neither set up an "ideal" set of social constructs, nor can we implement an "ideal" psychology, and hope the other falls into place.

The final stage of communism — true anarcho-communism — will come when the vast majority of people no longer have any desire to exploit others, even when they have the opportunity to do so; the only need for force will be against those individuals with true mentally illness.

This dialectical relationship is important at every level of the transformation of capitalism to anarcho-communism.

We can most easily directly affect social/political constructs; there are severe practical and ethical problems trying to modify people's psychology directly. But understanding the dialectic between social constructs and psychology gives us guidance as to the specific kinds of changes we can make, and lets us distinguish between economism and true reform.

For example, I think it's a good thing to organize labor unions: A union is a social construct that allows workers to act collectively for their mutual benefit; this activity directly reinforces the psychology of mutualism. But employing labor unions to merely ask for a fraction of the workers' surplus value, or allowing senior workers to take newer workers' surplus value does not reinforce the psychology of mutualism, and is therefore economism. The best employment of labor unions is to expropriate the bourgeois ownership of industry, because bourgeois ownership is an exploitative social construct and directly reinforces the psychology of exploitation.

Understanding this dialectic is not an argument for gradualism; it's not an argument to try to ameliorate the conditions of the proletariat under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. We need fundamental, revolutionary changes to our social and political constructs just to get this social/psychological dialectic on the right track. Economic relations are also in a dialectic with psychology and social constructs: so long as our economic relations are inherently exploitative, trying to push social constructs and psychology to mutualism will not be effective. (Note too that the inherently exploitative nature of capitalist economic relations degenerate into naked oppression and de facto slavery, creating the conditions necessary for revolution.)

But contrawise it's important to understand that there will be considerable remnants of exploitative capitalist psychology even after revolutionary changes, and the social and political constructs formed after a revolution must account for those remnants and change them as gracefully as possible. Brute force is a poor implement for psychological change.

In the early stages, the transformation of capitalism into early-stage socialism, we will have to take into account the psychological remnants of capitalism — the loathing of "free riders", the contradiction between mental and manual labor, the privilege of the intelligentsia — "respecting" those remnants while seeking to use social constructs to gradually transform them.

The later stages, the transformation of late-stage socialism to early-stage communism, will therefore still require a fairly large government even without class conflict — or, more precisely, the officials of the government themselves will be an economic class, requiring some sort of continuing class struggle between the government and the people. With all good luck, the early-stage communist class struggle can be engaged without violence, since the psychology of those in the government should have been affected by the social constructs of socialism. The "struggle" might well be to create large-scale economic endeavors without using mutualism-coercive state planning.

The dialectic between the social and the psychological changes its fundamental character under socialism, even in the earliest stages.

All class struggles before socialism are fundamentally the ruling class exploiting the ruled class, and the ruled class resisting exploitation. The social and political constructs under pre-socialist class struggles, therefore, reflect and support both the dominance of the ruling class (the ruling class deserves to rule) and also, to some extent the resistance of the ruled class.

The class struggle under socialism and communism, however, is only temporarily a struggle between the ruling class (the proletariat) and the ruled class (the bourgeoisie). This first struggle aims to eliminate the bourgeoisie as a class*, by making it so that no individual appropriates the surplus value of labor by virtue of ownership of capital. The elimination of the bourgeoisie as a class marks the transformation of socialism into early-stage communism, and ends the exploiting-by-ruling economic class struggle.

*Not, of course, by killing bourgeois individuals, but by transforming bourgeois individuals into people who work, into the proletariat. Note that its logically impossible for the bourgeoisie to eliminate the proletariat by making them all bourgeoisie; who would do the work?

Under early-stage communism there's still a managing class and a managed class. There are still classes, but the classes are no longer in a necessarily exploitative relationship. Since there are classes there must be class struggle, but the class struggle is for both classes to eliminate the remnants of exploitative psychological and social relations in the other. The managing class transforms the sheep-like, passive, authoritarian-submissive psychological elements in the managed class, and the managed class transforms the managing class to remove the remnants of exploitative social constructions and prevents the managing class from backsliding into an exploitative position. But more importantly, both classes are struggling to eliminate the need for coercive management.

In the final stages of communism, people engage in mutually beneficial relations not because they bind themselves coercively to prevent exploitation, but because it is the social and psychological norm to abhor exploitation and prefer mutuality. At that point, large-scale macroeconomic planning can be performed not by a coercive government, but by specialized experts who are listened to because it makes rational sense to do so, and those listening have been educated and trained to understand their arguments and explanations.

Objections to socialist economics

DBB (not to be confused with db0) raises some objections to socialist economics.

Hours of labor alone seems a rather poor measure - it doesn't reward innovation or efficiency. Just the opposite.
Grown-ups can innovate and become more efficient because it makes rational sense to do so. We don't need to reward innovation and efficiency with the power to exploit others' labor; we can do it with social prestige and other mechanisms.

Remember too, capitalism primarily rewards price-cost "efficiency" (monetary price divided by monetary cost) by paying labor the cost of their labor power, not the value of their labor. This is not a mutually beneficial sense of efficiency.

Even under a socialist hours-of-labor-limited extended economy, though, use-labor efficiency (use-value divided by socially necessary labor time) should improve over time, although perhaps not as quickly. But we already have an advanced industrial economy; we don't need to put most of our resources into improving productivity.

If I can build a shoe in an hour just as good as the average good-shoemaker can make in five hours, it seems unfair to force both of us to work five hours before we earn a shoe we can keep.
DBB has it backwards here. Under a socialist economy the better shoemaker would indirectly pressure the poorer shoemaker to become more efficient. Because the better shoemaker can make shoes more efficiently, a socialist economy would force him to undercut the poorer shoemaker's price. Since, however, there's not cutthroat competition under socialism, the government would help the poorer shoemaker become more efficient, and the better shoemaker — who is not permitted to exploit his customers' surplus value — wouldn't have a disincentive to keep his competitors from becoming more efficient.

Fundamentally everything in a socialist economy is paid for according to labor time. The subsistence economy comprises those endeavors where the socially necessary labor time is well-understood, easy to calculate, and not easily reduced. The extended economy comprises all endeavors where the socially necessary labor time is not well defined; prices in the extended economy are capped to compensate the individual actual labor time (which is obviously the upper bound on the socially necessary labor time) but can be reduced through truly free market non-cutthroat competition.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Good Germans

Good Germans really piss me off. Worst than out-and-out fascists. The ones who say, "Well, human nature is what it is, there really isn't anything we can do." The ones who say, "We can't make things perfect, therefore there's no room for improvement."

Of course left unsaid is the proviso that, "I'm doing OK; the rest of you can go fuck yourselves."

Perfect example:
Hm, interesting construction. But I believe social engineering belongs back to 19th century. History proved many times that all societies are based on individuals. And individuals are usually pretty clever, how to bypass the obligation and gain as much as possible from the benefits .) Not to say about organization of such society. The main problem of communism was total disorganization and incapability to control things from the center...
All of human civilization is a millennia-long exercise in social engineering. It doesn't have to stop just because you personally are doing OK.

I'm not saying you have to agree with me 100%, or even 90% or even 1%: I might be complete wrong about everything. But I'm trying. If you think you have a better idea, I'd love to hear it.

But the mindless bleating sheeple chorus of "Hey, people suck, whatcha gonna do? <shrug> I hear there's a good game on TV tonight," makes my blood boil.

If you don't have anything positive to contribute, indeed if you having nothing to contribute but tired platitudes and defeatism, go stick your head back up your ass. I'll take up a collection to buy you a glass navel so you can watch your shares of IG Farben rise.

In the meantime, mein kinder, try to stay upwind of the furnaces. You'll sleep better.

Government efficiency

Is government truly inefficient?

If we're going to call something "inefficient", we have to define the parameters of the efficiency equation: input divided by output, and we have to compare the efficiency to the efficiency of something else. There is no such thing as "absolute" efficiency in the logical sense; there are only comparisons of relative efficiency.

We have seen time and again that government — even our modern dictatorship of bourgeoisie — can perform activities in objective reality — building roads, bridges, airports for example — using an amount of money and labor time comparable to that of private industry. This is not to say that government building projects are always efficient, but then again neither is private industry always efficient.

Rather than inefficient, it's more accurate to say that government tends to be inflexible. But government inflexibility is by design: The whole reason to have the government do something is to make uniform standards prevail. The building inspector is — by design — not interested in your house being built as inexpensively and quickly as possible; she's interested in making sure it's built safely, according to objective, uniform standards. Uniform standards prevent innovation to some extent, but they also prevent mistakes and corruption. If an inspector cannot make an individual "judgment call" and her work is periodically audited according to objective standards, then she also cannot be bought off and pretend she's judging something to be safe when it's actually not safe.

There are some situations where inflexibility is a good thing; there are some situations where inflexibility is a bad thing. The key is discerning the difference, and putting those activities in government hands where inflexibility and uniformity is beneficial.

The Election of the Greatest Con-Man in Recent History

The Election of the Greatest Con-Man in Recent History:
What was evident from even a cursory analysis of his key campaign advisers and public commitments to Wall Street speculators, civilian militarists, zealous Zionists and corporate lawyers was hidden from the electorate, by Obama’s people friendly imagery and smooth, eloquent deliverance of a message of ‘hope’. He effectively gained the confidence, dollars and votes of tens of millions of voters by promising ‘change’ (implying higher taxes for the rich, ending the Iraq war and national health care reform) when in fact his campaign advisers (and subsequent strategic appointments) pointed to a continuation of the economic and military policies of the Bush Administration.

[h/t to Skeptical Eye]

Goverment control

Several commenters mention the undesirability of government administration of the economy in a (transitional) socialist society. Leaving aside for the moment the role of goverment in a "mature" communist society, we have only a few options for making large-scale decisions:
  1. Anarchism: individuals or small groups make independent decisions with no way to enforce* their decisions
  2. Direct Democracy: People vote on decisions, and enforce the outcome of the election
  3. Indirect Democracy: People vote for individuals to make decisions, and enforce those individuals' decisions
  4. Privilege: Certain individuals (somehow) become privileged to make enforced decisions; with no effective mechanism to arbitrarily withdraw that privilege.
(The fourth option is, of course, every ruling/ruled class society; the difference between feudalism and capitalism is how privilege is allocated and exercised.)

(The economic privilege of capitalism is not anarchism, it really is privilege, private law. Without the right to enforce his economic decisions, Bill Gates' $35 billion doesn't mean anything more than scoring 35 billion points in Asteroids. The "freedom" touted by Randians, Libertarians and "anarcho"-capitalists is nothing more than the freedom to acquire and exercise privilege — but of course the first thing that someone will do with privilege is arbitrarily determine who in the next generation receives their privilege, making the acquisition of privilege not free.)

The decision-making problem is not primarily about expertise, the accurate understanding of objective reality (although expertise is necessary). It's about motivation. In Prisoner's Dilemma situations, if I don't have the assurance that it's in another's self-interest to cooperate, then I cannot cooperate myself. If I cooperate then the other agent will simply exploit my own cooperation; I will end up worse off than if I defected.

Anarchism — decision making without any form of coercion — can achieve mutual cooperation only when the agents can play Tit-for-Tat. When Tit-for-Tat is inoperative, anarchism can achieve mutual cooperation only if all agents always choose to act cooperatively even when its physically possible to defect and exploit others' cooperation*. Even if a small number of agents routinely defect without punishment, they will eventually dominate the population through positive feedback.

Tit-for-Tat works only when the threat of future defection is operative, and when the number of future iterations is unknown. This limitation — not the limitation of imperfect knowledge about objective reality — places the upper bound on the time-scales of decision making: The "lag" between iterations not only cannot exceed the lifetime of the agents, but must be a small fraction of their lifetimes to preserve the uncertainty of the number of iterations.

Furthermore, Tit-for-Tat can work only when a betraying agent can be decisively identified; it does not good to punish an agent who did not betray. As endeavors become more complicated, with more participating agents, individual responsibility becomes more diffused and more difficult to identify. Again, this diffusion places an upper bound on the complexity of endeavors.

The other method to achieve mutual cooperation is to take the decision-making "out of the game", away from the participating agents, and place it in the hands of someone who has a "meta-interest" in helping the participating achieve mutual cooperation. In other words, by creating a government with individuals who do not have an interest in any individual agents' self-interest, but do have an interest in the mutual self-interest of all the agents. If the government can remain disinterested in individual agents' self-interest, they can facilitate endeavors to the limit of time and complexity where the mutually beneficial strategies can be known, which exceeds the Tit-for-Tat limitations and, with advanced information technology, has no discernible upper limit.

This task maintaining a disinterested government is difficult, and at best meta-stable. It may be impossible. But we know that to simply abandon the attempt to create such a government dooms us to restricting the scope of our endeavors to those that can be managed by anarchism.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Rebuttal to

db0 posts an interesting rebuttal to my argument that even a ideal communist society would require institutionalized state power.

The issue is definitely non-trivial.

Socialist economics

DBB asks, how would a socialist economy actually work?

About the best we have historically is Maoist Economics and the Revolutionary Road to Communism: The Shanghai Textbook, written in 1975, which describes the basic principles of China's socialist economy and politics. (I'm still reading the book myself.) Of course the political and economic conditions in pre-revolutionary and revolutionary China were very different from our own.

There isn't a consensus in the socialist/communist community as to how an industrialized society such as our own would operate on socialist principles; what follows are my own personal speculations. I'm specifically talking about a socialist economy in the sense of economics that form the transition between capitalism and communism.

To simplify, I will assume here that all labor is of equal intensity (everyone works as hard as everyone else) and equal "desirability" (there's no difference between gardening and sewer maintenance). These factors can be adjusted for in practice, but the theoretical underpinnings don't change much. I'll ignore here the political structures and focus on the economics.

First, we have the subsistence economy, the production of goods and services that are required for people to just live: food, housing, basic clothing, sanitation, medical care, education and child-rearing, etc. We have the advantage that these endeavors (except for housing) are already low-profit under capitalism — some, such as sanitation, are already government-operated — and are presently very efficient. The government can directly run the subsistence economy.

Assuming about 125 million working people in the US at 8 hours per day there are about 1 billion hours of labor power per day available. We already know that the subsistence economy requires less than the total available labor power. For simplicity, we'll assume that 500 mh/d (million hours per day) of socially necessary labor time is required to operate the subsistence economy; this time creates 1,000 mh/d of labor power. Our subsistence economy then runs at 200% efficiency.

Everyone is guaranteed subsistence, and everyone is therefore required by law to contribute his or her share of labor to the economy: everyone is required to work at least 4 hours per day. A person can simply apply to the government for a job, in which case the government will employ the person in the subsistence economy.

The subsistence economy would be fully socialized; the extended economy, whatever can be produced by the surplus labor power not required by the subsistence economy, can be run on truly free market lines, since there the indirect coercion of starvation is absent.

A person or group of people have three options: They can simply work 4 hours per day in the subsistence economy, and have the remainder of the time for leisure (or participation in the "free" economy, doing things like blogging, writing free software, etc.). They can work 4 hours per day in the subsistence economy and work additional time in the extended economy. Or they can work all their time in the extended economy (offset by some other people working 8 hours per day in the subsistence economy).

If some group of people want to work in the extended economy, they would propose the endeavor to the government.

Constant capital for the extended economy is created within the extended economy itself. Constant capital is owned by the government, and rented to those using the capital on a time-basis.

If the group wants to work full time, the government provides a limited amount of variable capital: the right of the people in the group to consume subsistence resources while they work. The government also provides a stimulus, extended purchasing power equal to the time worked over and above the subsistence time of 4 hours per day.

The price of the commodity being produced cannot exceed the total time necessary to produce the commodity divided by the number of items produced.

Suppose a group of people 10 people want to work 8 hours per day making stylish shoes (i.e. shoes not required in the subsistence economy). The present a proposal to the government, with a business plan, market research, etc. and it's approved. The Great Proletarian Footware Revolution Company is born.

They will require a shoe-making machine, which takes 10,000 hours to produce and will produce 1,000,000 pairs of shoes over its lifetime. The government owns the shoe-making machine, and rents it to TGPFRC for 1/100 hour per pair. They provide the workers of TGPFRC with one year's variable capital and one year's stimulus capital: 8 * 5 * 42 (everyone gets 10 weeks/year vacation in our socialist paradise) = 1,680 hours per worker. Since they are working full-time in the extended economy, each worker is taxed 840 hours for the year; each worker thus has an initial 840 hours to spend in the extended economy.

We'll assume that these 10 people can make 10,000 pairs of shoes per year. The maximum price of one pair of shoes would be 16,800 / 10,000 + 0.01 or 1.69 hours; TGPFRC would be free to set the price lower if they wished. So long as they can sell shoes to other people in the extended economy for more than 0.85 hours per pair of shoes, TGPFRC is a going concern and can operate indefinitely. Anything over 0.85 hours per shoe would be allocated by mutual agreement to the workers in TGPFRC. If, however, people in the extended economy aren't willing to spend 0.85 hours per pair for their shoes, the operation will eventually go "bankrupt", and the people will either have to get jobs on a farm or convince the government to fund a new endeavor.

In a socialist economy, there isn't the desperate competitive pressure to increase efficiency. But remember: the people in The Great Proletarian Footware Revolution Company are there because they like making shoes (or at least they prefer it to working on a farm). Why wouldn't they innovate and become more efficient just because it's fun?

Even if they didn't, someone, somewhere is going to form The All Power to the Soviets Boots and Sandals Company and — just because its cool — will produce 20,000 pairs of shoes using 16,800 labor hours (and machinery of the same cost), with a maximum price of 0.85 hours per pair. The Great Proletarian Footware Revolution Company would then be forced to follow suit. But, because the government is involved, they'll help The Great Proletarian Footware Revolution Company operate more efficiently, for the benefit of everyone.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

The communist state

Would the state, as Marx predicted, really wither away as socialism evolves into communism?

We have to be more precise about what we mean by "the state". There are two distinct senses. First, the state can just mean the government: a well-defined, bounded organization that holds and exercises a monopoly on the use of force. The second sense is the government acting to implement a class dictatorship, acting forcibly to secure the interests of some class of society.

Under socialism (in the sense of the political-economic system that acts as the transition between capitalism and communism) there will still be a bourgeoisie, a class of people who own capital; it does not seem feasible to instantaneously place the ownership of all the means of production directly under the direct control of the government. Therefore, the government will have to act to secure the interests of the people who work for a living, in opposition to interests of the owners of capital. In this sense, a socialist government will be a "dictatorship of the proletariat" as opposed to the current system where the government acts forcibly to secure the interests of the owners of capital and is thus a "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie".

(Technically the "state" refers not just to the government, but also the political superstructure, the social and psychological social relations that underlie and support the government. The commercial news media, for example, are part of the larger state, because the content and framing of the news reinforces and supports the role of government to secure the interests of the owners of capital. The organized mainstream political parties are also part of the larger state, as are the bourgeoisie themselves who finance the campaigns of the major candidates.)

The goal of communism is to erase class distinctions. If there are no classes, then there are no class interests for the government to secure, so the function of government to secure some class interests disappears.

But I think Marx wants to make a stronger claim: that there is no government under communism; that individual people under rational and mutually beneficial economic relations will not need a well-defined organization that has a monopoly on the use of force. The only need for force will be against people who are literally insane, and individuals or small groups can easily handle these few unfortunate individuals.

I think this claim is unrealistic, even under ideal conditions.

The Prisoner's Dilemma shows that some mutually beneficial outcomes require the mutual decision of both (or all) parties to forcibly bind themselves to an outcome. It's possible to optimize the outcome of iterated Prisoner's Dilemma games using the Tit for Tat strategy. However, relying exclusively on this strategy requires a near-universal individual adoption of deep social constructs. Furthermore, the Tit for Tat strategy limits the scope of economic decision-making to time scales sufficiently small that the number of times a game is iterated becomes hard to predict.

The latest financial crisis illustrates the limitations of Tit for Tat. Greenspan's theory of financial deregulation essentially assumes that the threat of Tit for Tat will adequately prevent one financial institution from betraying another by refusing to pay its debts. However, individual people within those institutions created complex financial instruments that delayed the decision to cooperate or betray (pay or default on debts) past the careers of those creating, selling and buying the instruments. It's easy to sell — even buy — a financial instrument you know is bad when the short-term consequences of that decision appear beneficial and the long-term consequences will fall on another's head.

Industrial production in Marx's time was much simpler than it is today. The most complicated industrial endeavor in the 19th century was, as far as I know, ship-building or railroad-building, endeavors that employed only thousands of people and operated on time-scales of only years. Today we manufacture aircraft, computers, and millions of automobiles, that employ tens or hundreds of thousands of people (when you count all the suppliers of all the components) and operate over time scales of decades (especially counting continuing research and development). A ship-building factory could be created using the financial capital of a handful of people; a factory to produce one kind of computer chip requires, or so I'm told, a billion dollars, or about 200,000,000 hours (assuming $5/hour) of socially necessary labor time. The Windows Vista operating system cost ten billion dollars to develop.

Once we start going into space to exploit the massive resources of the solar system, the problem will get even worse. Ventures will initially take decades to pay off the initial investments, and it will take perhaps a century or longer until the exploitation of space is economically self-sufficient.

These large-scale economic endeavors presently require and will continue to require a degree of centralized economic planning by people with considerable specialized expertise and the individual incentive to make decisions that are beneficial on time scales longer than their individual careers or even lives. It doesn't seem feasible to counting on purely individual decision making, even if that decision-making were ideally socialized.

(It's important for those who profess abhorrence to centralized economic planning to understand that this centralized planning is already happening. The capitalist class is even now engaging in high-level macroeconomic planning among themselves and relying on government power and economic participation to enforce compliance with this planning. The goal of socialism and communism is not to implement centralized economic planning, but to make the centralized economic planning directly responsible to the needs of all the people, not just the capitalist class.)

If there were a revolution, then, we would have to make a momentous decision: either restrict the scope of our technological and economic endeavors to a mid-20th-century level that could indeed rely on non-state mechanisms such as Tit for Tat to regulate individual behavior and anticipate the withering away of the state in the stronger sense. Alternatively we would have to permanently (at least for a century or two, and no one can make predictions on that time scale) institutionalize state economic planning to manage large-scale technological and economic endeavors.

Being a technophile, I would prefer the latter. But the institutionalization of state economic planning automatically creates a ruling class, those who do in fact perform the planning, and a ruled class of everyone else. Which means that class struggle itself must be permanently institutionalized. Which is a decidedly non-trivial — perhaps unsolvable — problem in political science.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Communism in a nutshell

What is communism? Yoo's complaint has some merit: communists all too often preach to the choir and do not sufficiently explain communism and socialism to the audience not intimately familiar with the literature.

I myself am still a beginner, so take my interpretation with a grain of salt.

Communism is a political philosophy and, like all political philosophies, it evolves and is the subject of internal controversy and contention. Today's communism differs from Marx's communism, and the communism of someone in the CPUSA differs from the communism of someone in the RCP. In a similar sense, today's evolutionary biology differs from Darwin's, and Richard Dawkins' evolutionary biology differs from Stephen Jay Gould's.

Furthermore, there are two kinds of communism: idealistic communism, and "transitional socialism*". Idealistic communism is the goal; transitional socialism is the means to move towards that goal from our present capitalist/imperialist conditions.

*There is controversy within the community whether communism and socialism should be exact synonyms or whether socialism specifically denotes the transition between capitalism and communism. There's support for both views going back to Marx; my usage of socialism to denote specifically a transitional political and economic structure has enough support in the current literature that it is not at all idiosyncratic.

The goal of idealistic communism is uncomplicated: A society without any relations of exploitation: economic, political, social and psychological. A society without any relations of exploitation would not have classes, nor would it have a state in the modern understanding of the term: class distinctions reflect relations of exploitation, and the modern state exists to enforce and maintain class distinctions.

Marx understood — and every other communist in the world understands — that one cannot simply wave a magic wand and declare "no more exploitation": There must be a transition from our current capitalist relations of economic exploitation (and the political, social and psychological relations of exploitation that "sit on top" of economic exploitation).

When communists say, "True communism has never been tried," they mean that no society has achieved anything even close to an ideal communist society. When anti-communists say, "Communism has failed," they mean exactly the same thing. The difference is not in the evidence but in the interpretation of and conclusions drawn from the evidence. Briefly, anti-communists say communism fell; communists say that it was pushed.

What specifically do communists mean by "relations of exploitation"? Fundamentally they mean that under capitalism, labor power is a commodity, an item of exchange that obeys the law of supply and demand, where the price (exchange value) tends towards the cost. Since the use-value of labor power exceeds its cost, the surplus value of labor power tends to go to the owners of capital who employ labor power to produce physical commodities such as boots or DVD players. Labor power is thus exploited by owners of capital.

Labor power can be a commodity only when capital is not a commodity. An item of exchange can be exempted from the law of supply and demand only by the exercise of state power. It is trivially obvious from recent events that financial capital, the ownership of money, is presently exempted from the law of supply and demand by the US government's power to tax and create debt.

Likewise, labor power will not be a commodity only when (financial) capital is a commodity. It requires state power to exempt labor from the law of supply and demand. Since everyone owns his or her own labor power, an economic society where labor power is not a commodity is inherently more democratic than a society where only a privileged few can own capital. Therefore it should become increasingly unnecessary for state power to exempt labor power from commodity relations. The state, Marx conjectures, will "wither away" as an instrument for maintaining exploitative class distinctions.

The socialist transition from capitalism to idealistic communism therefore entails the state somehow exempt labor power from commodity relations. This goal requires that capital cannot be privately owned (unless it's "privately" owned by everyone). Historically, this exemption has been implemented by direct government ownership of capital. What's been missing historically is true democratic control of the state. Anti-communists typically consider this lack to be inherent to communism and socialism; modern communists typically consider this lack to be due to contingent historical factors that have nothing to do with the core ideology of communism. The communist interpretation is strongly supported by much of Mao Zedong's — uncontroversially part of the core canon of communist literature — post-revolutionary work, especially regarding the Cultural Revolution.

True democratic control of the state, though, is difficult to implement. The United States — indeed no Western so-called "democracy" — is not a true democracy: there are enormous social, psychological and legal/political obstacles to the people themselves actually making the day-to-day decisions that affect their own lives. These obstacles exist to privilege (in the literal sense of "private law") the owners of capital and exempt capital from commodity relations. The two-party system, the role of money in elections, the disconnection of the people from their "elected" representatives, all reinforce the de facto "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie." Indeed capitalism is specifically protected by the Fifth Amendment: economic power cannot be taken away by the people in the same sense that official political power can be taken away by the people.

The people have been indoctrinated for hundreds of years in the moral and ideological justification of capitalism, and indoctrinated for thousands — or tens of thousands — of years in the slave morality of religion. Simply handing the people direct political power would result in at best the election of a new ruling class; at worst it could result in chaos and sectarian warfare. (Anyone who thinks this fear is peculiar to communism really should understand the history of American democracy and the explicit concern of the founders to prevent "mob rule" and privilege the "best" (i.e. richest) citizens.)

It is not known that socialism really can transition to idealistic communism. It might be the case that humanity is doomed to some sort of relations of exploitation. But it is equally unknown that socialism cannot transition to communism. Furthermore, it is equally unknown that historical attempts to transition from capitalism to communism (in late 19th and early 20th century Europe) or from feudalism to communism (in the USSR and PRC or even Cuba and other "third-world" socialist countries) were doomed to failure: it is impossible to eliminate the implacable and absolute hostility of the Western capitalist countries towards the socialist countries as the primary cause of these failures. We will never know, for example, what might have happened in the USSR had they not been reasonably and justifiably afraid of conventional invasion by Germany and nuclear war by the United States.

Communists do not lightly advocate turning all our economic and political structures, socially evolved over thousands of years, upside down. It is, however, becoming increasingly clear that capitalism is failing, failing catastrophically, and failing precisely when it is unopposed and unchallenged by serious external or internal socialist pressures.