Saturday, October 31, 2009

Labor and labor power

We can define labor as human activity that produces a commodity*. Labor power is the ability to perform labor, very much like potential energy in classical physics. We make the distinction because under capitalism, the ordinary working person exchanges his or her labor power for some price; the purchaser of the labor power then uses the labor that the labor power affords to create a commodity.

*Technically, labor produces any item of value. Since most items of value under commodity relations are intended for exchange, I've cut out the terminological middle-man for the sake of brevity.

Labor power has a cost: the cost to feed, clothe, house, and maintain the person who embodies the labor power in a fit condition to perform labor, as well as the cost to reproduce, educate and train the next generation of laborers. Labor power has use-value: it can be used to create commodities that directly or indirectly have subjective value. Labor power is in fact exchanged for a price.

Thus: labor power is a true commodity.

Thus: the price of labor power under commodity relations will tend over time to its cost.

Thus: those people who exchange their labor for a price will, over time, receive the minimum necessary price for survival and reproduction.

Human beings have an amazing capacity for enduring hardship and misery as the price of survival; the cost of labor power — and thus its price — can thus be made depressingly low.

In my introduction, I enumerated some of the horrific and intolerable conditions of present day society. But just the bare fact of those conditions is not enough — and should not be enough — for a rational person justify a radical change abandoning capitalism. It might be the case that these problems are no more due to capitalism than the misery and suffering caused by earthquakes or volcanoes. It might be the case that we just have the "wrong" kind of people in the capitalist ruling class.

All of the above may be true, but even the nicest, most well-intentioned and intelligent person must submit to the larger social and economic relations of a society. It is inherent and ineluctable under commodity relations that as long as labor power is treated as a commodity, those who exchange their labor power will tend over time to receive the minimum necessary — which ain't a lot — for survival and reproduction, no matter how much surplus their actual labor produces.

The problem of governance

Comrade PhysioProf approves of Tenured Radical's review of Stanley Fish's book, Save The World On Your Own Time.

Tenured Radical writes:
I particularly like the idea of administrators doing their job well so that I can pay close attention to what I was educated for: teaching, scholarship and providing sane advice on who we ought to hire, not shadowing and carping at administrators. Like Fish, the older I get the less attached I am to shared governance. In part this is because I don’t think there are many examples of faculties who have exercised it effectively and usefully, and in part, I don’t think it exists except as something we gesture towards. I prefer a clear set of regulations that are effectively and fairly enforced by objective parties who are truly interested in what is going on at the level of the department and willing to intervene when people are being screwed. I would prefer pay equity. I would prefer a union. I would also prefer, as Fish suggests, to get all the information possible, to make the preferences and reasons for those preferences known, and then to forget about it while a set of competent administrators settles the issue in a way that is fair.
and Comrade PhysioProf cheers her on:

If I had a dollar for every minute I have sat in faculty meetings listening to washed-up tenured deadwood fuckwads who can’t even successfully manage a research laboratory containing half a dozen scientists blither on and on and on about all the bad decisions the dean of our medical school is making and how if they were the dean everything would be totally unicorns and rainbows flying out of all of our asses, I’d be a motherfucking bajillionaire!

This issue is, in a microcosm, an instance of the problem of governance that socialists and communists have been struggling with for three generations.

On the one hand, a lot of smart, competent, good people are not particularly interested in the day-to-day issues of governance. And, as Comrade PhysioProf colorfully notes, a lot of people who are interested are not smart, not competent and/or not good.

The idea of an “objective” administration or government is defective (see The State and Revolution). Those in a group or class openly and transparently subject to social pressures (including political, economic and legal pressures) are not “objective parties” in the sense I think Tenured Radical intends, but any group that attempts to insulate itself from these pressures does so to privilege its own interests, often to the detriment to the interests of other groups.

In one way or another, administrators — academic and civil — are subject to broader social pressures. The question is not whether, but which pressures and how administrators are subject to these pressures.

Orwell said that (to paraphrase from memory) we can’t have socialism without better people, but we can’t have better people without socialism. I understand and share TR’s dislike of shared governance. It’s not only a pain in one’s own ass, but one has to share governance with a lot of fucktards. On the other hand, it is precisely this “I just want to do my own job and let the administrators do theirs” attitude that leads to privileged classes; administrators (and ruling classes in general) are no more inclined than anyone else to sacrifice their immediate self-interest out of the goodness of their hearts.

The notion that any person will “do the right thing” only because it’s “the right thing to do” is fundamentally irrational. There is no matter of objective truth about what the “right thing to do” actually is, and people are not fundamentally motivated by moral beliefs. People “do the right thing” because social pressures make the “the right thing to do” in their more-or-less immediate self-interest (to avoid censure or criticism) or because powerful material pressures have over generations indoctrinated the principle into their minds.

Fundamentally, true democratization of our social and political culture requires more than simply occasionally choosing which faction of a ruling class has titular administrative authority. It’s going to require that everyone exercise some sort of administrative authority every day, with all the inconvenience, bullshit, problems and putting up with fucktards that democratization entails.

That’s definitely a lot to ask, but, like TR, I don’t think it’s too much to ask.

Friday, October 30, 2009

More on Sunsara Taylor vs. Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago

I have received the following press release from Joan Hirsch, Sunsara Taylor's assistant. I've changed only minor details of formatting necessary to post the content here and added some links.

Update 31 October 2009: I've received a corrected version of Sunsara's statement, which replaces the earlier statement

"Morality Without Gods" Speech Canceled by Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago
Sunsara Taylor Denounces Dis-invitation as “Un-ethical”

Sunsara Taylor, a writer for Revolution newspaper and self-described “uncompromising atheist,” issued a statement today denouncing as “un-ethical” the decision of the Board of Trustees of the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago to uphold their dis-invitation to her to give a talk at the Society on Sunday, November 1, at 10:30 a.m. on “Morality Without Gods.” The full text of Taylor’s statement is below.

In early July, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, located in Skokie, extended an invitation to Taylor to speak on “Morality Without Gods” at the Society’s Sunday program on November 1, 2009. Two weeks before the scheduled appearance, some members of the Program Committee led a campaign to rescind the invitation.

In her statement, Taylor says this decision was based on “gross mischaracterizations and distortions of my character and of the content of my intended talk. It was pushed through in contradiction to [EHSC’s] own stated principles and in an atmosphere where fear and anti-communism were being aggressively stoked by some members of the Committee.”

Taylor added, “If the Society continues to proceed in this fashion and does not reverse its decision to dis-invite, it would be more appropriate to rename itself the “Un-Ethical Society for Anti-Humanism.”

Many prominent people are reacting to EHSC's dis-invitation of Taylor with alarm and concern. People who have spoken alongside Taylor in a variety of venues sent statements of support and many who on principle oppose the Society’s decision sent letters to the EHSC urging them to honor their invitation. Those include Chris Hedges, Esther Kaplan, Cindy Sheehan, Laura Flanders and many others.

Author and New York University media and communications professor, Mark Crispin Miller, wrote, “While certain of [Sunsara Taylor’s] arguments may well be controversial, that is no reason whatsoever to decide against allowing her to make them publicly, under your auspices: on the contrary. It is because her arguments are challenging that she should be allowed to go ahead and make them, as originally planned--allowing others there to challenge them in turn, if those others should be so inclined.”

To EHSC, Miller wrote, “your decision…if allowed to stand, will represent yet one more victory for ‘safe’ opinion over full and vigorous debate.”

In the statements appealing to EHSC to not cancel Taylor 's scheduled talk, a number of people spoke to the broader implications as they see them.

Dennis Loo, sociology professor at CalPoly in Ponoma, California, said, “It would set an exceedingly bad example both for your organization and for the broader society. Now more than ever reasoned dialogue and lively exchanges of ideas are called for.”

Paul Eckstein, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Bergen Community College , Paramus, NJ, wrote, “I expect better behavior from those one would ordinarily consider either natural allies or at least reasonable persons. This would be amusing if the crisis we are facing today weren't so serious.”

Taylor herself said, “These days, there is all too much self-censorship and acquiescence to the curtailment of unconventional discourse in academic and intellectual life, in political discourse, and on matters of morality and ethics. The decision of the Society must be seen in the context of, and as contributing to, this broader chill and this is why it is unacceptable.”

Sunsara Taylor affirmed in her statement today that she will be leading a workshop on the theme of “The Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of All Humanity” on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2-4:00 p.m. at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, 7574 N. Lincoln Avenue in Skokie, IL.

She also stated she will be "available and prepared to speak to all and any willing to hear the content of her originally scheduled talk, "Morality Without Gods,” on Sunday, November 1st.”

SUNSARA TAYLOR is a revolutionary voice of a new generation. She is a writer for Revolution newspaper and sits on the Advisory Board of World Can't Wait. She was written about in The New York Times, and appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, CNN's Showbiz Tonight, Fox's Hannity & Colmes, Fox & Friends, the Alan Colmes Radio Show. Taylor has traveled to the front lines and the heart of the controversy around abortion—from the funeral of recently murder abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, leading protests in support of abortion outside Obama’s commencement speech at Notre Dame and disrupting Rick Warren’s sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church. In her 2008-2009 speaking tour, Taylor has spoken and debated at campuses nationally on Away With All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World by Bob Avakian, including the Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA, Georgia State University, Columbia College and New York University. On October 2nd, Taylor was a speaker at the Atheist Alliance International 2009 convention in Los Angeles.

Statement from Sunsara Taylor [corrected 31 Oct 2009]
October 29, 2009

To Everyone Concerned About Critical Thought and the State of the World:

Something very wrong is afoot among those one would expect to be among the greatest champions of critical thought and open exchange. On October 19, 2009, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC) rescinded their long-standing invitation for me to speak to their Society's weekly gathering on November 1, 2009.

I had been invited to speak on the topic of “Morality Without Gods” back in July and I accepted this invitation in good faith. I arranged to be in Chicago to give this talk because I believe it is of the utmost importance to open up discussion of the questions thrown up by the moral crisis of our times and because I believe I have a valuable contribution to make to this discussion. As testified to by the statements below, this is a view that is shared by many who have heard me speak, shared a platform with me, and who have interviewed me, whether they agree with all of my views or not.

EHSC’s decision to dis-invite me was based on gross mischaracterizations and distortions of my character and of the content of my intended talk. It was pushed through in contradiction to the Society’s own stated principles and in an atmosphere where fear and anti-communism were being aggressively stoked by some members of their Program Committee.

Their decision to dis-invite me is wrong. It is not in keeping with EHSC’s avowed principles, i.e. “We value the importance of living an ethical, responsible, and joyful life. We promote intellectual, philosophical, and artistic freedom, avoiding dogma and rigid creed.” (from “Who We Are-What We Value” mission statement of EHSC). And, this decision contributes very negatively to the current chill on intellectual and political discourse that challenges the status quo in the academy, the media, and beyond.

I have heard many reports of fear-mongering and anti-communist hysteria being whipped up among members in regards to the alleged harm I could bring to EHSC if allowed to speak. None of this was ever addressed to me in an open or aboveboard way. Rather, the Committee has repeatedly implied that there was something in the content of my proposed talk that was either different than what they had invited me to speak on or beyond the pale of reasonable discourse for their Society. However, the theme of my talk is precisely in keeping with the original theme they invited me to speak on (“Morality Without Gods”). [see my submitted description below]

The only time anyone from the EHSC Program Committee cited anything objectionable in my proposed talk, it was complete distortion and defamation. On October 21, 2009, I wrote to the Program Committee, setting the record straight and documenting just some of this. Here is an excerpt of that letter from me:
In any case, I feel it necessary to set the record straight. Kashyap [of the EHS Program Committee] wrote:
On the first point, we are an inclusive humanist group. A talk that dwells on 'Christian fascists' and characterizes the leading moral problems facing the U.S. as depending critically on 'an influx of immigrants from around the world, [and] the entering of women into the workforce in the last generation' is not what we were expecting.
In fact, the description of my presentation clearly says we live in a time of moral crisis because "the stability and way of life of millions of people are being disrupted by the effects of imperialist globalization." I give examples of these huge fast-paced changes and instability in people's lives here and around the world as part of what is giving impetus to a resurgence of reactionary fundamentalist religion as people seek something solid, familiar and absolute in a time of such upheaval and change. Kashyap has pulled a snippet of my talk description out of context to imply that I blame society's moral crisis on immigrants and women joining the work force when my actual meaning was clearly just the opposite, including to counter the scapegoating and backlash that a narrow and hateful brand of Christian fundamentalism engenders against these sections of our population.
Is there any who can read such a gross mischaracterization and inversion of the content of my planned talk and believe this dis-invitation was based on sound principle?

Instead of responding to any of the key matters of fact and principle addressed in my above quoted letter, or offering any honest objection to the actual content of my planned talk, the wrong decision to dis-invite me was then compounded and fortified. On Monday, October 26th, the Society as a whole allowed the Board of Trustees to shamefully reaffirm this decision on the same wrong basis in a hurriedly called meeting.

It matters little whether the broader membership sanctioned this dis-invitation due to blatant anti-communism or “merely” out of the desire to “preserve the unity” of the Society; the effect and the precedent remain the same. All too often these days, great moral wrongs are allowed to sit, and capitulation on matters of principle is excused in the name of “not disrupting unity” or that it is simply “too much work” to go up against the forces arrayed against what is just.

This calls to mind the line from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.” Those times when it is most difficult to stand up for principle, those times when standing up for principle requires going against the grain and sometimes even sacrifice, are precisely the times when it is most required and can make the greatest difference. These days, there is all too much self-censorship and acquiescence to the curtailment of unconventional discourse in academic and intellectual life, in political discourse, and on matters of morality and ethics. The decision of the Society must be seen in the context of, and as contributing to, this broader chill and this is why it is unacceptable.

In their most recent letter to me, the Board of Trustees of EHSC wrongly invokes all sorts of procedural “rights” of their committee rather than addressing the content of my objections to their decision.

They write, “We do not censor programs, and it is clear to our members that speakers do not necessarily reflect the view of our Society. We do, however, have the right to choose the speakers who speak and the topics of their presentations. We have a Program Committee that conducts a process to determine the speakers and topics for our Sunday.”

However, it was not I who went to the Program Committee and insisted that they allow me to speak; they approached me. After conducting their established process, they invited me and published my name as an upcoming speaker in their October newsletter.

Further, the fact that it is the bureaucratic “right” of the Board of Trustees to reach the decision to dis-invite me does not make that decision morally right, any more than the “right” of California voters to ban gay marriage through made that decision morally or ethically defensible.

All suggestions on the part of EHSC Board or Program Committee, as made in their October 28th letter to me, that I would somehow endanger the “safe, peaceful, engaging” atmosphere of their Sunday program is merely further character slander. This behavior from any organization is shameful, but coming from a group that avows itself to be rooted in ethics and humanism it is disgraceful.

If the Society continues to proceed in this fashion and does not reverse its decision to dis-invite, it would be more appropriate to rename itself the “Un-Ethical Society for Anti-Humanism.”

In their October 28 letter, the Board of Trustees apologized for “any acrimony between the Ethical Humanist Society and [myself] that has transpired recently.”

However, the conflict that has arisen between EHSC and myself was never about feelings of “acrimony” but of profound matters of principle and ethics. I protest and condemn in the strongest terms their decision not out of feelings of personal acrimony or a sense of pride, but out of a firm commitment to matters of ethics and principle. Indeed, I do not believe I would be worthy of any platform to speak on matters of ethics or morality if I did not strongly object and condemn and call out such shameful behavior on the part of any organization.

I intend to fulfill my commitment to all who want to hear me speak. I will lead a workshop on the theme of “The Liberation of Women and the Emancipation of All Humanity” on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2-4:00 p.m. at the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago, 7574 N. Lincoln Avenue in Skokie. Further, I will be available and prepared to speak to all and any willing to hear the content of my originally scheduled talk, “Morality Without Gods,” on Sunday, November 1st.

I believe this is the only ethical thing to do.

Sunsara Taylor


We live in a time of moral crises. These crises are NOT, as the Christian fascists like to constantly insist, because of “abortionists, the ACLU, homosexuals, and science instructors who teach evolution.” These crises exist because the stability and way of life of millions of people are being disrupted by the effects of imperialist globalization. Around the world: massive global migrations, the rise of a transnational sex slave trade consuming millions of young women and girls, the wars and widespread use of torture by the U.S., and the increased disparity between the obscenely wealthy and the billions who have been cast into desperation, poverty and disease with no hope of a decent life. Here in the U.S.: the loss of millions of stable middle class jobs, an influx of immigrants from around the world, the entering of women into the work force in the last generation, and the development of a violent and bigoted movement with Christian fundamentalism woven into its core.

Why have these changes led to a resurgence of reactionary fundamentalist religion here and all over the world?

How do we counter that with a secular morality of our own?

Sunsara has traveled the country and reported on the rise of Christian fascism. She has also written and spoken about the ways that U.S. imperialist wars and aggression and reactionary Islamic fundamentalism have reinforced each other, even while opposing each other. In this work she has drawn on the framework and themes developed by Bob Avakian, the Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, including in his pathbreaking book, Away with All Gods! Unchaining the Mind and Radically Changing the World. In this talk, Taylor will bring alive many of the themes spoken to by Avakian in Away With All Gods to answer these questions and to explore communist morality as a real and viable alternative: a morality rooted in, and serving as a guide to get to, a world without men oppressing women, without a handful accumulating vast wealth at the expense of the many, without white people lording it over people of color, without one country trying to run the whole globe, and a world where critical thought and the scientific pursuit of the truth, as well as artistic and intellectual ferment and the flourishing of individuality, are fostered.

Many prominent atheists, humanists and scholars have written in Sunsara Taylor's support, including:
  • Professor Mark Crispin Miller
  • Author Chris Hedges
  • Hemant Mehta, the Friendly Atheist
  • Bob Bossie, SCJ
  • Professor Massimo Pigliucci
  • Esther Kaplan, The Nation Institute
  • Professor Peter Phillips
  • Author Jeff Sharlet
  • George Francis Kane
  • Laura Flanders
  • Professor Dennis Loo, Ph.D.
  • Norm R. Allen Jr.
  • Cindy Sheehan
  • Pastor Darren Stephens, "Pastor Dave" of the Best Church of God
  • Theology professor Taigen Dan Leighton
  • Feminist Laura X
The text of their statements can be found on Sunsara's blog [link corrected].

Commodity Relations, part 2

Commodity relations describe the economic activity of individuals and small* groups:
  1. Making stuff
  2. Exchanging that stuff for other stuff
  3. Using the stuff we've exchanged
It therefore stands to reason that we're interested in three properties of the stuff we make, exchange and use: its cost, price (or exchange value) and use-value.

*Even a huge corporation is relatively small compared to the overall population.

The cost of a commodity is how much it takes to create the commodity. (How much of what? Good question.) The use-value is how much subjective enjoyment a person receives from consuming the commodity, or from consuming what the commodity produces.

(Note too that we use "commodity" to represent both an individual thing, such as a particular pair of shoes, as well as a type of thing, such as pairs of shoes in general.)

Since an essential feature of commodity relations is about the exchange of commodities, we want to focus on how commodities are exchanged, i.e. how we socially determine the price of a commodity.

When we exchange commodities directly for other commodities, the price is determined by what is exchanged. If I give you one hat and you give me two pairs of shoes, the price of two pairs of shoes for me right now is one hat; the price of one hat for you right now is two pairs of shoes. Money (especially fiat money like 2009 dollars instead of commodity money like gold) just adds a level of indirection: If I give you one computer for $100, and go to the grocery store and spend $100 on a bag of groceries, then the price of a bag of groceries for me right now is one computer.

There are a lot of people in a society, all exchanging stuff at various prices. We therefore want to talk about various statistical properties of all of these exchanges. Also, we want to talk about the dynamics of these properties, how the individual and statistical properties change over time.

When we look at theoretical models of how we expect human beings to conduct commodity relations, we draw a possibly surprising conclusion:

Statistically, the price of a commodity is a function of its cost, not its value

It's extremely important to understand that we're talking about price, not use-value. Economists' habit of using exchange-value to talk about price (and using price to talk about the exchange value in terms of money) has led to many misconceptions, from Santayana to Heinlein. (Read Heinlein's Starship Troopers for a hilarious, but egregious and indefensible misunderstanding of economic theories of price.) If it costs the same to make a six-foot high pile of toxic waste and an apple pie, that does not mean that a pile of toxic waste is worth an apple pie. It just means that if people were to exchange piles of toxic waste for apple pies, they would exchange one apple pie for one six-foot high pile of toxic waste. Marx did not invent this relationship, and in Das Kapital he explicitly disambiguates exchange-value and use-value, but he still bears the brunt of uninformed criticism of this relationship.

This law of commodity relations is statistical, not individual. Just because it costs Alice twice as much as Bob to each make an identical pair of shoes does not mean that Alice's shoes "deserve" or will command twice the price of Bob's. Also, the this law of commodity relations is dynamic: it could be phrased more precisely by saying that over time a statistical property of the price of a commodity approaches a statistical property of its cost.

All microeconomic models predict a strong correlation between price and cost, even the most conservative "freshwater" capitalist economic models, i.e. Marginalism.

If we use Marginalism to compare patterns of subjective use-value, we find a society will produce two different commodities with different patterns of use-value in the proportion necessary to exchange those commodities on the basis of equivalent cost. If we use Marginalism to compare patterns of production cost vs. use-value, we determine the statistical property of the cost that corresponds to the price.

We can empirically measure price and cost independently, and verify or falsify the theoretical models by looking at the correlation between price and cost in a number of commodities. There are other factors than cost affecting price, so the correlation won't be perfect, but if the law has any value at all under present circumstances, we should see at least a strong correlation.

There are many other arguments in favor of the relationship between price and cost. For example, a computer has (at least for me) more use-value than a car: I have eight computers (some not working) and one car; I spend more time using my computer than I do driving my car; and if I had to choose between a car and a computer I wouldn't hesitate to keep the computer and ride the bus. Yet a car costs two orders of magnitude more than a computer, because it costs more to build a car than a computer.

I could go on but I hope I have you convinced:

Under commodity relations, people exchange commodities on the basis of equivalent cost.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Many a truth...

... is told in jest. Originally "A man may seye full sooth in game and pley" (Chaucer)

U.S. Continues Quagmire-Building Effort In Afghanistan (The Onion)

First comment

I got my first comment since re-re-(re?-)opening the blog and re-enabling comments. It was totally stupid and easily rejected.

If you actually have something to say, something within spittin' distance of rationality, I'll probably publish it. But I'm just not interested in stupidity, especially arrogant stupidity.

Sunsara Taylor vs. Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago

According to the information I've received, the Ethical Humanist Society of Chicago (EHSC) invited Sunsara Taylor, a writer for Revolution Magazine to speak on the topic of Morality Without Gods. This topic features prominently in Bob Avakian's recent book, Away With All Gods, which Sunsara has been promoting. Her invitation was subsequently cancelled, apparently because of ideological differences with some of EHSC's prominent members.

According to Sunsara:
Sunday night, October 18, less than two weeks before the program, I received an email letter from Anil Kashyap (copy attached) notifying me that some in the program committee are trying to cancel my talk.

According to Sunsara, the organizers felt that her presentation was "not what they had expected" and somehow objectionable because it refers to Christian Fascists. They also bizarrely allege that her talk does not "look anything like" a discussion about "how moral, ethical behavior need not depend on a theistic outlook."

I've also received a private communication that quotes the co-chair of the EHSC Program Committee, Prof. Anil Kashyap, as saying:
A talk that claims morality is inconsistent with a global economy is nonsense. The first order fact that cannot be ignored is that the greatest anti-poverty program in history is the growth in China over the last 30 years. That was only possible because of globalism. That transformation has lots of problems, but more starving and desperate people have been lifted up faster than ever in human history.
Whether one agrees with Prof. Kashyap or Ms. Taylor, this cancellation has the appearance of outright censorship.

I cannot speak for the EHSC or its membership, but I can say that if these kind of shenanigans occurred in an organization I was a member of, I would be outraged and call bullshit in the loudest possible voice — even if I did not know Sunsara personally or have a great deal of sympathy with her position.

Sigh... sometimes an atheist is a person with one fewer stupid belief than a theist.

A Google search has not revealed any position or explanation by the EHSC.

Economics Links

Any good communist or socialist should, in my not-in-the-slightest-bit-humble opinion, have a good basic understanding of capitalist economics. We must, of course, know the enemy, but slso the capitalists really are running the world, and reality does bite back. There are huge theological distortions in capitalist economics — capitalist economists are as much propagandists justifying the position of the ruling class as they are scientists — but they do need to keep a global economy running and they cannot retreat into pure fantasy even as far as religions. (And even religions have to have some connection to the realities of human psychology to retain believers.) Always keeping a sharp eye out for theological distortions (which we can do not on an ideological but on a scientific basis), we can still learn much about human economic behavior from capitalist economists, especially the relatively liberal capitalist economists.

You should, at the very least, read: and follow their links. I'll have more recommendations as I sort out my reading list.

Some interesting recent articles:

*To read Financial Times articles in full without registration, search the headline (i.e. "Long Road to Regulation") in Google News and click on the link from there.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Quotation of the Day

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.

— Michael Shermer

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Commodity Relations, part 1

The two essential features of capitalism are:
  1. The dominance of commodity relations
  2. The social, political and legal privilege held by the owners of capital

Commodity relations are a specific kind of economic relations, a particular way that people socially relate to each other regarding the use of purposeful human activity to create the "stuff" that we need for material survival and enjoyment.

Under commodity relations, each individual typically produces one or two commodities, such as hats, shoes, coats, wheat, rice, houses, computer programs, movies, and so forth. Individuals then exchange those commodities with other individuals. Furthermore, this exchange is "hostile", in that both individuals in any exchange are trying to get the "best" deal at the expense of each other (thus distinguishing commodity relations from the exchange of gifts).

Commodity relations existed before the capitalist era: people have exchanged the products of their labor since time immemorial, but under capitalism commodity relations are the dominant form of economic relations. People exchanged things under feudalism, but most labor was directed towards individual self-sufficiency (each individual directly consumed most of the products of his or her own labor, without exchange) and the dominant form of social economic activity was paying tribute to the feudal aristocracy and nobility, without a direct and immediate exchange of compensating commodities.

Similarly, although commodity relations dominate under capitalism, not all economic relations are commodity relations. If you do your own housework, that's labor (human activity that's not inherently desirable, but is purposefully and effectively employed towards a desirable end) but you don't exchange the product of your labor with others. (Of course, hiring someone to clean your house is a commodity relation.) Likewise, taxes are not a commodity relation; the benefits of taxation are indirect and deferred, not direct and immediate.

But still, under capitalism, most people spend the majority of their working day producing a single good or service, which they exchange for money, which they exchange for all the various commodities they need for survival and the enjoyment of life. In order to understand capitalism, we have to understand commodity relations in some detail.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Communism for Dummies

I want to articulate the case for communism as clearly and simply as I can.

Anyone who wants to make changes, especially radical, revolutionary change, must first answer the question: what's wrong with the status quo? Why not keep what we have, or at most fix what we have, instead of making radical changes?

We are in the middle of a world-wide depression. Unemployment is almost 10%, counting only those people actively looking for work, or about 17%, counting everyone un- or under-employed except voluntarily (e.g. retirees). Millions of people are facing poverty and the ruin of their productive lives. This poverty and hardship has clearly not been caused by some catastrophe — earthquake, hurricane, plague, drought, war, insurrection — that has somehow diminished our real wealth. We still have the same factories, the same farms, the same skills, the same labor power that we had just a few years ago when we all (at least people in the professional-managerial middle class, and a substantial percentage of wage-laborers) thought we were doing pretty well.

Nothing has changed between then and now except the behavior of the owners of capital.

There are also more persistent issues that any person who cares about the well-being of all human beings must label as at least objectionable, and often intolerable.

Tens of millions of people, most of whom work full time, have no health insurance at all, no access to routine health care; they have access only to emergency care, the most expensive form and least efficient mode of health care. Millions more have inadequate health insurance: three-quarters of all people who go bankrupt due to medical bills have health insurance.

Billions of more people around the world live in abject poverty, with hundreds of millions of people (perhaps a billion) facing malnutrition and starvation right now.

We are currently engaged in two wars of aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the United States our ordinary political liberties, supposedly enshrined in the Constitution have been drastically curtailed, by both Republican and Democratic presidents and legislatures, with cooperation of the Supreme Court. Even president Obama, with historic popularity and a creepy, almost religious adoration among liberals and progressives (but nowhere near as extreme as the very creepy, explicitly religious adoration of George W. Bush among conservatives), has done little to restore habeus corpus, halt indefinite detention without trial, punish torturers, or extricate us from our wars of aggression. And the "war on (some people who use some) drugs" has made a mockery of the Fourth Amendment for the past thirty years.

(And how did a capitalist "democracy" ever elect a fool such as George W. Bush, a monster such as Dick Cheney, and a bunch of heartless bastards such as the Republican congresses of the early 21st century?)

There are many other problems, both here in the US and abroad: racism, sexism, a ballooning prison population, religious fundamentalism both Christian and Islamic, genocide in the Sudan. The list is depressingly long.

And, of course, with global warming we are staring an imminent world-wide ecological catastrophe right in the face.

Clearly the status quo is broken. It must at least be fixed, somehow. Can it?

The "conservative" answer is: capitalism not broken. 10% nominal (or 17% real) unemployment is just not a problem. It's right and just that tens of millions of working people are without health insurance. These people do not deserve jobs, they do not deserve health care, they do not deserve life itself; why can't they just lie down and die? A billion people starving is perhaps regrettable, but it's not the fault of capitalism or the capitalist ruling class, and they can't fix it. And there's nothing at all wrong with wars of aggression; after all, as Michael Ledeen famously asserted, "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

The "liberal" and "progressive" answer is: capitalism can be fixed. After all, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Democratic congress fixed it once in the 1930s and 40s, n'est-ce pas? But if we fixed it then, why didn't it stay fixed?

The socialist and communist answer is that the same structural and systematic features of capitalism that made it valuable in the 18th and 19th centuries, and even (if you hand-wave over two world wars and multitude of other sins) valuable in the 20th century are precisely the features that are either causing the problems of today or blocking effective solutions.

I have to make two cases: First that capitalism is not just implemented imperfectly, not just subject to human foibles, but inherently and structurally flawed. Second, I have to offer a reasonable and systematic alternative that addresses the inherent structural flaws in capitalism. Furthermore, this alternative system must have plausible mechanisms in place to prevent the potential of catastrophic failure in any radically new plan. I believe I can make both cases persuasively to any intellectually honest and caring person, without requiring either a "religious" conversion or massive historical or theoretical study.